‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf’s Plainsong reminds me of Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry at their best. It’s a story about the West, in plain, unadorned language. The people he represents are spare, in the best possible sense; there’s not a lot of room for frivolity in their lives. There are cows to feed; there’s winter to survive; there are basketball stars who need to pass American History in order to graduate. There’s not a lot of time, necessarily, for love, romance, or pretty things.
Four stories are woven together. The one I found most compelling, as I think most people will, is that of Victoria Robideaux, a teenaged girl who becomes pregnant after a summer fling. She decides she wants to keep the baby, and the decision is oddly straightforward, presented without a lot of navel-gazing, without mention of religion or morality or anything else. The decision to keep the baby is presented as just that — her decision — and not anyone else’s business, really.
The other stories concern two boys named Ike and Bobby, who live a stunningly timeless childhood in this tiny Colorado town; their father, Tom Guthrie, who teaches at the high school; and the McPheron brothers, crusty old bachelors who find that coming out of their shells is both easier and more rewarding than they may have thought.
What I loved about Plainsong was its unadorned optimism. Life is hard in Holt, Colorado — the story is mostly set in fall, winter, and early spring. For those of you who do not live in the West, those are pretty miserable seasons, especially if it hasn’t snowed. Everything is brown and sad and dead, and sometime around February you begin to feel as though nothing will ever be green or pretty again.
But the people of Holt know better. The McPheron brothers know that spring will and must come, because their cows are pregnant, and calves mean spring. They form the optimistic core of this story, the hope, or maybe just the quiet knowledge that even though things look pretty bad now, eventually the buds will come on the trees and the calves will be born and things will be all right again. Ike, Bobby, Tom and Victoria rest in that hope and draw strength from it, even when life seems unbearably bleak.
Maybe there’s a lesson to be had there about remaining close to the land. The McPherons are the only farmers (ranchers?) of the lot, and the ones that seem the most grounded, the most steady. The rest of the characters seem somewhat adrift in a lot of ways, until the trust the solidity of the McPherons. They are, in almost a literal sense, the salt of the earth. If the theme of George R. R. Martin’s work is “Winter is Coming,” the theme of Plainsong is exactly the opposite — “Spring is coming; this, too, shall pass.”