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Plainsong [Paperback]

Kent Haruf
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (628 customer reviews)

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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

YA-This saga of seven residents of Holt, CO, details the problems they face and how they come together to solve them. Their divergent stories begin with Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher whose wife suffers a breakdown and abandons him and their two young sons. The Guthrie boys are often on their own while their stressed-out father struggles to keep the family together. Next are Victoria Roubideaux, 17 years old, alone, and pregnant; and Harold and Raymond McPheron, two elderly brothers who know nothing about "real life" outside their farm. It is Maggie Jones, Tom's colleague, who provides him with solace and brings resolution to these many dilemmas. Maggie talks the McPheron brothers into taking the pregnant teenager in, even though they have some reservations about this arrangement. Victoria and the two lonely men adjust to one another and form a family unit that none of them has known before. The characters tell their stories in alternating chapters. All of them are struggling but it is their caring, kindness, and forgiving spirits that help them support one another. There is a keen sense of place here-a place where family and community matter. YAs can learn from this novel about nontraditional families, about small towns where everybody knows everybody else's business, and about the power of love.
Carol Clark, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

The author defines a plainsong as ?any simple and unadorned melody or air.? The novel lives up to its namesake; it is a simple and eloquently phrased ode on the nature and necessity of family. Living in the small Colorado town of Holt are Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher raising his two young boys alone; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage girl with nowhere to go; and Harold and Raymond McPheron, two bachelor cattle rancher brothers. Maggie Jones, a colleague of Tom!s, helps Victoria find a place to live with the McPherons and tries to help Tom move beyond his sadness. The lyrical flow of the prose used to describe the plain, everyday happenings in the lives of these regular folk is well presented by Tom Stechschulte. Plot development and suspense are minimal; instead the characters are the focus of the tale. Highly recommended.?Denise A. Garofalo, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

It's a good thing young Ike and Bobby Guthrie are close, because they're in for a spell of loss and radical change. Victoria Roubideaux, 17, is too, but she has no sibling to stand beside her during bouts of morning sickness, or when her mother throws her out of the house. Haruf, author of The Tie That Binds (1984), alternates between the Guthrie boys' adventures and Vicky's quest to find a safe place for herself and her baby, but the two story lines soon entwine because all lives converge in the small Colorado town of Holt, which he so adroitly portrays. The Guthrie boys are often on their own after their mother leaves, while their nearly overwhelmed father, Tom, a high-school teacher, is distracted by the threats of a violent student. Vicky goes to Maggie Jones, a colleague of Tom's, for help. Unable to provide her with the sanctuary she needs, Maggie delivers Vicky to the elderly McPheron brothers, farmers as tightly connected as Tom's sons. Vicky revolutionizes their staid lives, and they provide her with her first true home, and the resulting familial love seems to set the entire countryside aglow. Haruf's narrative voice is spare and procedural, and his salt-of-the-earth characters are reticent almost to the point of mannerism until it becomes clear that their terseness is the result of profound shyness and an immensity of feeling. Haruf's unforgettable tale is both emotionally complex and elemental, following, as it so gracefully does, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

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, whos 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 shes 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 Harufs 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 in which 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. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely . . . it has the power to exalt the reader." --The New York Times Book Review

"Resonant and meaningful . . . . A song of praise in honor of the lives it chronicles [and] a story about people's ability to adapt and redeem themselves, to heal the wounds of isolation by moving, gropingly and imperfectly, toward community." --Richard Tillinghast, The Washington Post Book World

"A compelling and compassionate novel. . . . [With] his sheer assurance as a storyteller, [Mr. Haruf] has conjured up an entire community, and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." --Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

"Haunting, virtuosic, inimitable." --Sarah Saffian, San Francisco Chronicle

"If the novelist invents a world, then Mr. Haruf has shaped a place of enormous goodness... The story itself--spare, unsentimental, rooted in action--honors the values of the community it describes." --Lisa Michaels,

"A moving look at our capacity for both pointless cruelty and simple decency, our ability to walk out of the wreckage of one family and build a stronger one where that one used to stand." --Jeff Giles, Newsweek

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." --Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

From the Inside Flap

"Ambitious, but never seeming so, Kent Haruf reveals a whole community as he interweaves the stories of a pregnant high school girl, a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, and a couple of crusty bachelor farmers. From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace--a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround, transport, and lift the reader off the ground."
-FROM THE CITATION FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

From the Back Cover

"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely . . . it has the power to exalt the reader." --The New York Times Book Review

"Resonant and meaningful . . . . A song of praise in honor of the lives it chronicles [and] a story about people's ability to adapt and redeem themselves, to heal the wounds of isolation by moving, gropingly and imperfectly, toward community." --Richard Tillinghast, The Washington Post Book World

"A compelling and compassionate novel. . . . [With] his sheer assurance as a storyteller, [Mr. Haruf] has conjured up an entire community, and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." --Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

"Haunting, virtuosic, inimitable." --Sarah Saffian, San Francisco Chronicle

"If the novelist invents a world, then Mr. Haruf has shaped a place of enormous goodness... The story itself--spare, unsentimental, rooted in action--honors the values of the community it describes." --Lisa Michaels,

"A moving look at our capacity for both pointless cruelty and simple decency, our ability to walk out of the wreckage of one family and build a stronger one where that one used to stand." --Jeff Giles, Newsweek

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." --Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

About the Author

Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Award, a Stegner Award, a Frank Waters Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. His novel Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in his native Colorado.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform. After a time he put out the cigarette and went upstairs and walked past the closed door behind which she lay in bed in the darkened guest room sleeping or not and went down the hall to the glassy room over the kitchen where the two boys were.

The room was an old sleeping porch with uncurtained windows on three sides, airy-looking and open, with a pinewood floor. Across the way they were still asleep, together in the same bed under the north windows, cuddled up, although it was still early fall and not yet cold. They had been sleeping in the same bed for the past month and now the older boy had one hand stretched above his brother's head as if he hoped to shove something away and thereby save them both. They were nine and ten, with dark brown hair and unmarked faces, and cheeks that were still as pure and dear as a girl's.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

You boys better come on, Guthrie said.

He watched their faces, standing at the foot of the bed in his bathrobe. A tall man with thinning black hair, wearing glasses. The older boy drew back his hand and they settled deeper under the cover. One of them sighed comfortably.

Ike.

What?

Come on now.

We are.

You too, Bobby.

He looked out the window. The sun was higher, the light beginning to slide down the ladder of the windmill, brightening it, making rungs of rose-gold.

When he turned again to the bed he saw by the change in their faces that they were awake now. He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed. When he returned to the hallway he could hear them talking in their room, their voices thin and clear, already discussing something, first one then the other, intermittent, the early morning matter-of-fact voices of little boys out of the presence of adults. He went downstairs.

Ten minutes later when they entered the kitchen he was standing at the gas stove stirring eggs in a black cast-iron skillet. He turned to look at them. They sat down at the wood table by the window.

Didn't you boys hear the train this morning?

Yes, Ike said.

You should have gotten up then.

Well, Bobby said. We were tired.

That's because you don't go to bed at night.

We go to bed.

But you don't go to sleep. I can hear you back there talking and fooling around.

They watched their father out of identical blue eyes. Though there was a year between them they might have been twins. They'd put on blue jeans and flannel shirts and their dark hair was uncombed and fallen identically over their unmarked foreheads. They sat waiting for breakfast and appeared to be only half awake.

Guthrie brought two thick crockery plates of steaming eggs and buttered toast to the table and set them down and the boys spread jelly on the toast and began to eat at once, automatically, chewing, leaning forward over their plates. He carried two glasses of milk to the table.

He stood over the table watching them eat. I have to go to school early this morning, he said. I'll be leaving in a minute.

Aren't you going to eat breakfast with us? Ike said. He stopped chewing momentarily and looked up.

I can't this morning. He recrossed the room and set the skillet in the sink and ran water into it.

Why do you have to go to school so early?

I have to see Lloyd Crowder about somebody.

Who is it?

A boy in American history.

What'd he do? Bobby said. Look off somebody's paper?

Not yet. I don't doubt that'll be next, the way he's going.

Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate. He looked up again. But Dad, he said.

What.

Isn't Mother coming down today either?

I don't know, Guthrie said. I can't say what she'll do. But you shouldn't worry. Try not to. It'll be all right. It doesn't have anything to do with you.

He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating altogether and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses were.

You better go on, he said. By the time you get done with your papers you'll be late for school.

He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn't say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

Do you want anything? he said.

She didn't bother to open her eyes. He waited. He looked around the room. She had not yet changed the chrysanthemums in the vase on the chest of drawers and there was an odor rising from the stale water in the vase. He wondered that she didn't smell it. What was she thinking about.

Then I'll see you tonight, he said.

He waited. There was still no movement.

All right, he said. He stepped back into the hall and pulled the door shut and went on down the stairs.

As soon as he was gone she turned in the bed and looked toward the door. Her eyes were intense, wide-awake, outsized. After a moment she turned again in the bed and studied the two thin pencils of light shining in at the edge of the window shade. There were fine dust motes swimming in the dimly lighted air like tiny creatures underwater, but in a moment she closed her eyes again. She folded her arm across her face and lay unmoving as though asleep.

Downstairs, passing through the house, Guthrie could hear the two boys talking in the kitchen, their voices clear, high-pitched, animated again. He stopped for a minute to listen. Something to do with school. Some boy saying this and this too and another one, the other boy, saying it wasn't any of that either because he knew better, on the gravel playground out back of school. He went outside across the porch and across the drive toward the pickup. A faded red Dodge with a deep dent in the left rear fender. The weather was clear, the day was bright and still early and the air felt fresh and sharp, and Guthrie had a brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it and stood for a moment looking at the silver poplar tree. Then he got into the pickup and cranked it and drove out of the drive onto Railroad Street and headed up the five or six blocks toward Main. Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.

From AudioFile

Haruf's musical conceit creates a delicate line of atmosphere and a narrative of individual voices blended together to tell a story. A pregnant adolescent; two lonely, old ranchers; a man in marital trouble; his children; and the woman who waits for him make up the various parts. The deliberate pace provides its own drama. Stechschulte tries to enliven things with regional accents, but his strong gender differentiation has unfortunate results. Women do not speak in whispers, and it's disturbing to hear these strong-willed examples so portrayed. This is a work that should be read straight. S.B.S. © AudioFile 2000, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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