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Plainsong (Haruf)

Plainsong 
Kent Haruf, 1999
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780375724794


Summary

Plainsong is set in Holt, Colorado, a rural community well outside Denver; the setting is timeless, with only the occasional, fleeting reference to VCRs or pop culture indicating that the book takes place closer to "now" than "then."

Tom Guthrie is a high—school teacher left raising two young sons after his depressed and disappointed wife moves to the city. His children bake cookies, ride horses, and run a paper route, but at the same time they almost consciously seek out a cool, hardened, cowboy sense of maturity.

Meanwhile, another teacher helps a pregnant teen disowned by her mother find love and acceptance in two hilariously well-intentioned elderly brothers. The two tentatively take the girl on as a boarder on their cattle farm even though they barely know how to communicate with anyone but each other.

These seven characters form the core of Plainsong, which switches vantages from chapter to chapter like a more direct Faulkner, though the prose is no less poetic and evocative. Through this device, Haruf illustrates how relationships are formed and what makes them last, how responsibility and accountability make people good, and how cooperation can make a small town strong in times of conflict.

A fast, encouraging, enlightening read, Plainsong is beautiful, real, and wise: a true great American novel. (By Joshua Klein, Barnes & Noble.)



Author Bio
Birth—February 24, 1943
Where—Pueblo, Colorado, USA
Died—November 30, 2014
Where—Salida, Colorado
Education—B.A., Nebraska Wesleyan University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop
Awards—(see below)


Alan Kent Haruf was an American novelist and author of six novels, all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Life
Haruf was born in Pueblo, Colorado, the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated with a BA from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965, where he would later teach, and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1973.

Before becoming a writer, Haruf worked in a variety of places, including a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Turkey, and colleges in Nebraska and Illinois.

He lived with his wife, Cathy, in Salida, Colorado until his death in 2014. He had three daughters from his first marriage.

Works
All of Haruf's novels take place in the fictional town of Holt, in eastern Colorado, a town based on Yuma, Colorado, one of Haruf's residences in the early 1980s. His first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), received a Whiting Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. A number of his short stories have appeared in literary magazines.

Plainsong was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. The New York Times' Verlyn Klinkenborg called it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader." Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Eventide, a sequel to Plainsong, was published in 2004. Library Journal described the writing as "honest storytelling that is compelling and rings true." Jonathan Miles saw it as a "repeat performance" and "too goodhearted."

On November 30, 2014, at the age of 71, Kent Haruf died at his home in Salida, Colorado, of interstitial lung disease.

Our Souls at Night, his final work, was published posthumously in 2015 and received wide praise. Ron Charles of the Washington Post called it "a tender, carefully polished work that it seems like a blessing we had no right to expect."

Recognition
1986 - Whiting Award for fiction
1999 - Finalist for the 1999 National Book Award for Plainsong
2005 - Colorado Book Award for Eventide
2005 - Finalist for the Book Sense Award for Eventide
2009 - Dos Passos Prize for Literature
2012 - Wallace Stegner Award
2014 - Folio Prize shortlist for Benediction
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 8/26/2015.)



 

Book Reviews 
Plainsong is a hymn of praise—a paean to the power of place and to the capacity of individuals to transcend loneliness and despair, coming together in community. Haruf's writing has a graininess that lingers on tiny details as characters move from place to place.
A LitLovers LitPick (Dec. 07)


Haruf has made a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.... At times, a sentence almost suggests Flannery O'Connor.... But the prose and the outlook are always Haruf's own.
Verlyn Klinkenborg - New York Times Book Review


Although the intersection of these three sets of lonely lives might normally have all the melodramatic makings of a provincial soap opera, Mr. Haruf orchestrates their convergence with such authority and grace that their stories materialize before the reader's eyes without a shred of contrivance. As his critically acclaimed first novel, The Tie That Binds (1985), demonstrated, he possesses an intimate knowledge of farm and small town life, and in this novel, he uses that knowledge to immerse the reader in the daily rhythms of life in Holt, Colo. His language borrows the spareness and measured cadences of Hemingway, but it has a folksy, down-home inflection, the sound of the prairies and great plains.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times


Handled by a lesser writer, some of these plots would be predictable, but Haruf's prose transcends any formula. The writing is simple and understated, with no quotation marks around the dialogue. The novel has a timeless quality to it. This gentle book is a beautiful read, appropriate for high school collections and public library young adult collections. Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal.
VOYA


In the same way that the plains define the American landscape, small-town life in the heartlands is a quintessentially American experience. Holt, Colo., a tiny prairie community near Denver, is both the setting for and the psychological matrix of Haruf's beautifully executed new novel. Alternating chapters focus on eight compassionately imagined characters whose lives undergo radical change during the course of one year. High school teacher Tom Guthrie's depressed wife moves out of their house, leaving him to care for their young sons. Ike, 10, and Bobby, nine, are polite, sensitive boys who mature as they observe the puzzling behavior of adults they love. At school, Guthrie must deal with a vicious student bully whose violent behavior eventually menaces Ike and Bobby, in a scene that will leave readers with palpitating hearts. Meanwhile, pregnant teenager Victoria Roubideaux, evicted by her mother, seeks help from kindhearted, pragmatic teacher Maggie Jones, who convinces the elderly McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, to let Victoria live with them in their old farmhouse. After many decades of bachelor existence, these gruff, unpolished cattle farmers must relearn the art of conversation when Victoria enters their lives. The touching humor of their awkward interaction endows the story with a heartwarming dimensionality. Haruf's (The Tie That Binds) descriptions of rural existence are a richly nuanced mixture of stark details and poetic evocations of the natural world. Weather and landscape are integral to tone and mood, serving as backdrop to every scene. His plain, Hemingwayesque prose takes flight in lyrical descriptions of sunsets and birdsong, and condenses to the matter-of-fact in describing the routines of animal husbandry. In one scene, a rancher's ungloved hand repeatedly reaches though fecal matter to check cows for pregnancy; in another, readers follow the step-by-step procedure of an autopsy on a horse. Walking a tightrope of restrained design, Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which revelations of character and rising emotional tensions are held in perfect balance. This is a compelling story of grief, bereavement, loneliness and anger, but also of kindness, benevolence, love and the making of a strange new family. In depicting the stalwart courage of decent, troubled people going on with their lives, Haruf's quietly eloquent account illumines the possibilities of grace.
Publishers Weekly


Two bachelor farmer brothers, a pregnant high school girl, two young brothers, and two devoted high school teachers—this is the interesting group of people, some related by blood but most not, featured in the award-winning Haruf's touching new novel. Set in the plains of Colorado, east of Denver, the novel comprises several story lines that flow into one. Tom Guthrie, a high school history teacher, is having problems with his wife and with an unruly student at school—problems that affect his young sons, Ike and Bob, as well. Meanwhile, the pregnant Victoria Roubideaux has been abandoned by her family. With the assistance of another teacher, Maggie Jones, she finds refuge with the McPheron brothers—who seem to know more about cows than people. Lyrical and well crafted, the tight narrative about how families can be made between folks who are not necessarily blood relatives makes for enjoyable reading. Highly recommended for public libraries.
Library Journal


A stirring meditation on the true nature and necessity of the family. Among the several damaged families in this beautifully cadenced and understated tale is that of Tom Guthrie, a high-school history teacher in small Holt, Colorado, who's left to raise his two young sons, Ike and Bobby, alone when his troubled wife first withdraws from them and then, without explanation, abandons them altogether. Victoria Roubideaux, a high-school senior, is thrown out of her house when her mother discovers she's pregnant. Harold and Raymond McPheron, two aging but self-reliant cattle ranchers, are haunted by their imaginings of what they may have missed in life by electing never to get married, never to strike out on their own. Haruf (Where You Once Belonged, 1989, etc.) believably draws these various incomplete or troubled figures together. Victoria, pretty, insecure, uncertain of her own worth, has allowed herself to be seduced by a weak, spoiled lout who quickly disappears. When her bitter mother locks her out, she turns to Maggie Jones, a compassionate teacher and a neighbor, for help. Maggie places Victoria with the McPheron brothers, an arrangement that Guthrie, a friend of both Maggie and the McPherons, supports. Some of Haruf's best passages trace with precision and delicacy the ways in which, gradually, the gentle, the lonely brothers and Victoria begin to adapt to each other and then, over the course of Victoria's pregnancy, to form a resilient family unit. Harold and Raymond's growing affection for Victoria gives her a sense of self-worth, which proves crucial when her vanished (and abusive) boyfriend, comes briefly back into her life. Haruf is equally good at catching the ways inwhich Tom and his sons must quietly struggle to deal with their differing feelings of loss, guilt, and abandonment. Everyone is struggling here, and it's their decency, and their determination to care for one another, Haruf suggests, that gets them through. A touching work, as honest and precise as the McPheron brothers themselves.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Why might Kent Haruf have chosen "Plainsong" as the title for this novel? What meaning, or meanings, does the title have in relation to Haruf's story and characters?

2. How does the small town of Holt figure as a character in each novel? How are the characters in each of the novels completely believable and different? How does Haruf repeat some character traits in his novels and to what effect? How do the characters and the image of the town change from book to book?

3. Few hints are given in the novel about what life might have been like for the Guthrie family before Ella left. What do you imagine that life to have been like? What sort of a marriage did Tom and Ella have, and what made it go wrong? What might account for Ella's nearly total withdrawal even from the children she seems to love?

4. How do the three teenagers having sex in the abandoned house inform and affect Ike and Bobby? What does this sight tell them about sex? About love? About the relationships and power struggle between men and women?

5. Do you believe there are marked differences between Raymond and Harold McPheron? If so, what are they?

6. Why do you think the McPheron brothers have chosen to spend their lives together rather than start families of their own? Are they lonely or unhappy before Victoria's arrival, or do they feel sufficient in themselves? What does Maggie mean when she tells them, "This is your chance" [p. 110]?

7. What parallels can you draw between the McPheron brothers and the young Guthrie boys? Why is the relationship so close in each case? What sort of a future do you see for the Guthrie boys? Do you think they will marry and have families?

8. The McPheron brothers think they know nothing about young girls. Is that the case? Has their solitary life close to the earth handicapped them so far as human relations go, or has it, in fact, provided them with hidden advantages?

9. What examples of parents abandoning children—either by desertion, emotional withdrawal, or death—can be found in this novel? What do these incidents have in common? How does abandonment affect children, and how does it shape their lives and relationships?

10. It is usually women who are portrayed as nurturers, but in this novel, men--Tom Guthrie and the McPheron brothers—provide shelter and comfort. How do men differ from women in this respect? What do these men offer that a woman might not be able to?

11. "These are crazy times," Maggie Jones says. "I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever" [p. 124]. What does she mean by this? In what way are our times "crazier" than earlier eras? How does such "craziness" affect the lives of young people such as Victoria, Ike, and Bobby?

12. What motives and feelings might have driven Tom to sleep with Judy when it was really Maggie he was interested in? Why might Maggie have seemed momentarily frightening or intimidating to him?

13. Why do the Guthrie boys befriend Iva Stearns? What are they looking for in this tentative friendship? Do they find what they are seeking?

14. Why do the Guthrie boys go to the McPheron brothers after Iva's death rather than to someone closer to home, like their father or Maggie? Is there any indication that they connect Iva's death with their mother's abandonment? Why do they place their mother's bracelet on the train tracks, then bury it?

15. The inhabitants of Holt and its surroundings are extremely laconic: they speak only sparingly, as though they mistrust words. What might cause this? In what way does it affect the characters' relationships with one another?

16. How would you describe Holt, Colorado? What are its limitations, its disadvantages, and what are its strengths? In what ways is it typical of any American small town, and in what ways is it different? What help does it provide for people who need healing, like the characters in this book?

17. Plainsong depicts some unusual "family" groups. How might Kent Haruf define family?

18. For general discussion of Kent Haruf's works—

a. How does Kent Haruf's writing style change from his first novel to the National Book Award finalist Plainsong? What is the effect of Haruf's style in each and use of language on the reader?

b. How does the small town of Holt figure as a character in each novel? How are the characters in each of the novels completely believable and different? How does Haruf repeat some character traits in his novels and to what effect? How do the characters and the image of the town change from book to book?

(Questions issued by publisher.)

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