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Plainsong Hardcover – September 21, 1999


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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (September 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375406182
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375406188
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (642 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #869,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Plainsong, according to Kent Haruf's epigraph, is "any simple and unadorned melody or air." It's a perfect description of this lovely, rough-edged book, set on the very edge of the Colorado plains. Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher whose wife can't--or won't--get out of bed; the McPherons are two bachelor brothers who know little about the world beyond their farm gate; Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant 17-year-old with no place to turn. Their lives parallel each other in much the same way any small-town lives would--until Maggie Jones, another teacher, makes them intersect. Even as she tries to draw Guthrie out of his black cloud, she sends Victoria to live with the two elderly McPheron brothers, who know far more about cattle than about teenage girls. Trying to console her when she think she's hurt her baby, the best lie they can come up with is this: "I knew of a heifer we had one time that was carrying a calf, and she got a length of fencewire down her some way and it never hurt her or the calf."

Holt, Colorado, is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone's business before that business even happens. In a way, that's true of the book, too. There's not a lot of suspense here, plotwise; you can see each narrative twist and turn coming several miles down the pike. What Plainsong has instead is note-perfect dialogue, surrounded by prose that's straightforward yet rich in particulars: "a woman walking a white lapdog on a piece of ribbon," glimpsed from a car window; the boys' mother, her face "as pale as schoolhouse chalk"; the smells of hay and manure, the variations of prairie light. Even the novel's larger questions are sized to a domestic scale. Will Guthrie find love? Will Victoria run away with the father of her baby? Will the McPherons learn to hold a conversation? But in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Plainsong manages to capture nothing less than an entire world--fencing pliers, calf-pullers, and all. Kent Haruf has a gorgeous ear, and a knack for rendering the simple complex. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

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. Agent, Peter Matson. 75,000 copy first printing; 12-city author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

The oddities the characters had were much too contrived.
James C. Costa
The individual stories of the characters were woven together to create a larger story in a way that was simple yet beautiful.
Lauren Hatch
This is one of the lovliest books I have read in a long time.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

124 of 130 people found the following review helpful By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 30, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
PLAINSONG is one of those novels that sneaks up on a reader, beginning with understated prose and culminating with such authorial affection that the reader does not want to leave the fictional world. Haruf follows the lives of several characters in rural Holt, Colorado - Guthrie, an honest school teacher whose wife has suffered a nervous breakdown; his two sons, Ike and Bobby, who find themselves facing death, independence, and growing up; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager thrown out of her mother's house; the McPherons, Harold and Raymond, bachelor brothers who know more about cattle prices and corn cribs than they do about people; and Maggie Jones, the woman who connects them.
I did not fall in love with this novel until the hundredth page or so, and then I could not put it down. The narrative flows like a meandering river - steadily but without visible ripples on the surface - and so it takes time to become fully invested in Haruf's characters. Fortunately, the characterizations, fictional details and the quality of the prose are strong enough from the start to keep one reading. The rhythms of life in Holt and the honest, almost innocent, way its citizens face their trials give this novel a graceful elegiac quality.
PLAINSONG is a quiet character-driven novel that evokes small town life on the American Plains. I heartily recommend it to readers who like this kind of fiction.
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54 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Susan Bumbalo on November 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the very best books I've read in a while, and I read 2-3 books a week. I had to force myself to read it slowly so I could savor it. The writing is simple and beautiful, the setting and climate are evoked descriptively, the main characters are honorable, courageous, and likable, and the McPheron brothers are fabulous. I knew it would be excellent when I saw on the back cover that Richard Russo and Howard Frank Mosher, two of my very favorite authors, praised it.
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113 of 129 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on June 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I believe this book was nominated for an award or two, and it is well written and easy to read in a sitting or two. The story line is familiar--life in a small town in a rural setting. Most of us live in urban areas these days, but many have parents or grandparents who lived in small towns, or can imagine life in a place where everyone knows everyone.
Any number of books including murder mysteries are set in towns or villages. This is a refreshing book because the characters are real but not psychotic. They all have too much going on in their own lives to meddle with others or murder a neighbor. Haruf depicts the day to day struggle--to get out of bed, to get to work, to do your job, to find love. You come to care about his characters, particularly Maggie Jones the school teacher who brings people together. It is Maggie who understands the needs of the McPheron brothers, Vitoria Roubideaux, and Tom Guthrie. She isn't a do-good Mrs. Fix-it either, just a kindly person who cares enough to make a useful suggestion, lend a helping hand, or offer a word of encouragement. In the end, all the characters whose lives have been touched by Maggie's simple grace have formed a better life for themselves.
My only criticism of the book is that it lacks a sense of connectedness with the setting. The characterization is strong and the plot is straightforward, but I did not feel "present" in the story. I had the sense I was moving underwater and only vaguely comprehended my surroundings. It's the feeling I've had when coming out from under general anesthesia. I could not latch onto the story the same way I did with Jane Smiley's "Thousand Acres" where I could almost see and touch and smell the land.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Like Kent Haruf's previous books, Plainsong looks unflinchingly at the cruelty of "plain" human beings, and counterbalances all that's ugly with a remarkable "song" of human kindness and care. Two old brothers, who know little more about the world than birthing calves, take in a young woman rejected by her mother, abused by her lover, and take care of her as she prepares for the birth of a child. Two young brothers go through a terrible journey of loss--their mother, an old neighbor, their innocence about the world of sex and human cruelty--and find solace with the two older brothers who've built their dignity on a lifetime of shared losses. And a teacher, accused of abusing a boy who's bullied his sons, finds love when his wife has abandoned him and the sons he tries to protect.
This book, nominated for the National Book Award, is subtle, understated, lovely. And like Kent Haruf's other remarkable novels, it is fully grounded in the plain and beautiful language of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. You must read this book.
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47 of 53 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 2, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Beautiful, beautiful book. The authentic voices allow the reader to co-create the characters, making for a rewarding reading experience. The style is a tribute to Strunk & White: less is more, nouns and verbs win out over adjectives and adverbs. I stayed up til 2:30 a.m. reading this one, and never felt as though I'd missed the sleep.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Maria Atas on February 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Plainsong offers you snapshots of several lives interwoven into a story set in the small town of Holt. Its prose is simple, without exaggeration and unnecessary stimulation, yet as you continue reading, it pulls you into caring about its characters and their troubles.

I started out reading this book impatiently looking for a punch-line or a twist. But I soon learned to enjoy Plainsong like a vacation with no agenda or urgency. There is no build up, climax or low point. But it is involving just the same. It's a novel about regular people that will remind you of friends you may already have, with problems that are timeless yet contemporary- teenage pregnancy, divorce, depression, as well as a healthy dose of the good things in life - friendship, generosity, the support of a community, new beginnings.

A peaceful read; Plainsong's charm creeps up on you if you allow it. But you have to be in the "right" mindset or mood for it. If you're one who only gets a thrill out of an adventure-type of book, with many twist and turns, or prefer the surprise of an unpredictable ending from a fast paced novel or mystery, this book may disapoint you.
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