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Amazing Grace

A review of "Plainsong"



If books were seasons, Plainsong would be autumn. If books were weather, Plainsong would be a cool, crisp wind.

Set on the eastern plains of Colorado in the fictional town of Holt, Kent Haruf's novel is a marvel of simplicity -- a tale that encompasses the intimate lives of seven people, telling volumes about each of them with few, well-chosen words. The title is a double entendre, referring to the physical setting of the story and to the nature of the telling of the tale, "simple and unadorned."

In fact, aside from the lucid characterizations of those seven people and the precise descriptions of the land in Plainsong, the language itself becomes a key character in the book. Haruf uses minimal punctuation. His characters' speak in short, articulate phrases, uttering only what they absolutely must say, leaving the wondering and pondering to the reader.

Plainsong opens in the house of Tom Guthrie, a high-school teacher whose depressed wife lies disconsolate in a darkened upstairs bedroom while Tom greets the sunrise and awakens his two sons, 9- and 10-year-olds Ike and Bobby. Out back, two horses run circles in a corral.

Across town lives Maggie Jones, a fellow teacher at the high school, who cares for her aged, senile father and eventually takes under her wing Victoria Roubideaux, a 17-year-old girl who is four months pregnant and has been kicked out of the house by her embittered mother.

When Maggie's father turns irrationally violent toward Victoria, the teacher approaches two friends, the brothers McPheron, and asks them to take her in. The McPherons, Harold and Raymond, are cattle ranchers who live a ways outside of town. Somewhat reclusive and never married, they are getting up in age. They are the embodiment of rugged individualism, though they live in a kind of eccentric duality, finishing one another's thoughts and sentences, living together in extreme physical isolation.

The bulk of Plainsong takes place over the course of Victoria's pregnancy, chronicling the ways that all these lonely lives grow by their proximity to each other, and by the simple, profound act of caring.

In the background, the seasons change, and the reader enters the desolate but beautiful landscape of the high plains, cold and wind-swept throughout the long winter but ripe with the promise of spring.

Haruf moves us masterfully through the streets of Holt, and deep into the lives of the main characters. Bobby and Ike are like miniature McPherons -- somber and pure, but open to wonder. Their inherent kindness is illustrated by their actions -- each Saturday, while collecting for their paper route, they pay an extended visit to Mrs. Stearns, an old lady who lives in a filthy, cluttered, overheated apartment, and who serves as a sort of surrogate grandparent to the boys. Guthrie, too, is slowly revealed to us by his interaction with Russell Beckman, resident bad boy and the student at the high school who dares the faculty to defy his sullen attitude and rude behavior.

Maggie Jones and Victoria Roubideaux are meticulously drawn female characters in this very male book. Haruf knows their minds as well as he knows the men in the book, and he hits every note of their desire, affection, fear and inner strength exactly right.

Haruf manages to draw all these characters together without a hint of reunion rhetoric -- when their lives cross, they do what humans instinctively do, grow to love one another, with no trumpet calls or heartstrings or flourishes. In Plainsong, people merely exercise their common humanity, and the reader is left to watch what happens.

It feels vaguely obscene to heap praise on this beautiful little book, so I will just say this: The other night, when I couldn't sleep because of the roar of thoughts and unfinished business in my head, I picked up Plainsong and opened it to a middle page. As I read Haruf's stark, elegant prose, my head cleared, my eyes grew slack, and I was instantaneously sung to sleep by that unadorned lullaby.

Plainsong is a book rich with humanity. Its profundity is obscured by its weightlessness, and the after-effect of reading it is a mental state as rosy and clear as the first morning sunlight over the eastern plains.

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