Plainsong (Haruf) - Author Bio

Author Bio 
Birth—February 24, 1943
Where—Pueblo, Colorado
Education—B.A., Nebraska Wesleyan University; M.F.A.,
   Iowa University
Awards—Whiting Foundation Writer's Award, 1977;
   PEN/Hemingway Foundation Special Citation, 1985; Maria
   Thomas Fiction Award, 1991
Currently—lives in southern Colorado

Though many readers know Kent Haruf as the author of 1999's acclaimed novel Plainsong, Haruf had already made an auspicious debut with The Tie That Binds in 1984. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. Some short stories appeared in literary magazines, but it was another nine years before Haruf surfaced again on the bookshelves.

Despite the long gestation period, Plainsong yielded rich returns. The story weaves together several characters: pregnant 17-year-old Victoria Roubideaux; the McPherons, an elderly pair of cattle rancher brothers who take Victoria in; Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, abandoned by their depressed mother; and a high school teacher who knows them all, Maggie Jones. Each chapter is titled for one of the characters, carrying the reader along with one or another as all of them intersect. Nominated for the National Book Award, Plainsong became a bestseller and was warmly reviewed. "It has the power to exalt the reader," the New York Times Book Review declared.

Plainsong, which derives its title from the unadorned vocal music often sung in Christian churches, is aptly named. The tale is simply told, the action moves slowly, and dialogue resides within the text, unframed by quotation marks. All of Haruf's novels are set in the High Plains community of Holt, in eastern Colorado—a fictional town much like the ones Haruf grew up in. "In the Plains, things are stripped down to the essentials, and that seems to fit what [Plainsong] is about and that seemed to be an obvious setting for this story," he says in a publisher's interview. The rhythms of nature and simple work are a latticework underlying the author's stories. Like the landscape of the setting, the progression of Haruf's tales is subtle. He is a thoughtful, understated writer who writes with a restrained sympathy for his characters, even when they seem not to warrant much.

Haruf revisited some of Plainsong's characters in Eventide, continuing Victoria's story as she heads off to college and bringing both tragedy and renewal to the McPheron brothers. The theme of unconventional family units continues, as does the mixing of modern urban problems and simple rural life. An 11-year-old orphan cares for his grandfather; a mother of two copes with being abandoned by her husband; and a mentally disabled couple struggle to keep their family intact.

Like his later novels, The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged feature Haruf's straightforward narrative style and rural setting. However, both have a sharper edge and more explosive content, dealing with hard crimes and focusing more on individual characters. Tie focuses on one woman's tragic life story of family sacrifice; Belonged tells about the crimes inflicted on the town of Holt by one of its former residents, an ex-football hero.

Haruf's stories end as openly as they begin; though well crafted and thoroughly imagined, they are not about tight plot construction or surprising twists. Instead, Haruf is more concerned with expressing emotional truths. "Our lives are generally pretty messy," Haruf told the Kansas City Star in a 2000 interview about Plainsong. "What I want to suggest at the end [of the book] is that at this point, at least this day and this point in their lives, all these people have found a place in a small community—it may even be an extended family—in which they can connect with other people and find solace and communion."

• Over the years, Haruf has worked as at a variety of places, including: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska.

• Haruf lives with his wife Cathy. Between them, the two have eight children from previous marriages. Haruf has three daughters.

• Haruf taught at Southern Illinois University before the profits from Plainsong allowed him to retire and move back to Colorado.

Plainsong was made into a CBS TV movie in 2004. Rachel Griffiths starred as Maggie.

• In a 2004 interview with Barnes and Noble editors, Kent Haruf talked about the books that influenced him the most as a writer:

  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • The Bear by William Faulkner
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

    These four books shocked me when I first read them as a junior in college. I've never gotten over the shock and don't want to. I was shocked, astonished, by the skill on the page; I'd never read anything I liked so much, in terms of craft and story. These books changed my life. I knew after I'd read these books that I wanted to do something with literature from then on. I didn't know what, but I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the presence of these books and others. Only later did I realize that I wanted to write. Saul Bellow is reported to have said, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." That's my story."

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