Friday Book Whimsy: Plainsong

I will say right up front that this was a reread. And I will read Plainsong again and again and again. This beautiful book is among my top three favorite books, no question about it.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, much like the television program Seinfeld, is a book about nothing. But I eagerly read every word, and while I read, I kept wistfully looking at how much of the book was left, simply not wanting it to end.

Plainsong is about five or six people who live in a small farming town in eastern Colorado. Though their lives intersect, (because how can they not in such a small community?) each has their own story to tell.

Bobby and Ike are brothers – young boys of 9 and 10 – who are forced to face much sadness during these few months in their young lives. Their mother suffers from deep depression and leaves them with their father to move to Denver. Guthrie is a high school teacher who faces his own moral dilemmas. Victoria is a 17-year-old girl whose mother and father have both deserted her, leaving her to face her pregnancy alone. She turns to Maggie Jones, a kind teacher, who realizes the importance of relationships. She takes her to live with the McPheron brothers.

The McPheron brothers are the stars of the show. Harold and Raymond McPheron are old bachelors who have lived together since birth, in the same house. They are hard-working ranchers who are set in their way, living their simple life. They are kind, however, the kindest, most endearing characters you will ever meet in a book. It is safe to say that the McPheron brothers are two of the most memorable characters I have ever come across in a book. I have never forgotten them, and I never will.

Haruf’s writing is beautiful. It’s why the book is worth reading, plain and simple. He writes in short, clear sentences. His descriptions are simple, not elegant in that phony way that some authors have. You can so clearly see and smell and taste what he describes.

You don’t have to be very far into the book to see what I mean. In the first few pages, Guthrie is waking his sons for school. They are having trouble waking up, but he finally succeeds and leaves them. A few minutes later, he walks again past their room.

Here’s what Haruf says:

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.

When I read that paragraph, I immediately thought about the sounds of my little grandkids when they are downstairs playing together – just two of them. I can’t really hear what they’re saying, but I hear their little voices going back and forth, discussing their make-believe game, whatever it is, or discussing something important in their lives. Haruf captured that experience in just a few words.

One of my favorite things about his writing is that it is so subtle. He doesn’t preach and he doesn’t horrify you with gore and violence, though violence does take place in this book. But he gets his point across through the eyes of the characters. An example: Ike and Bobby witness a terrible act by some teenagers. Later, they return to the scene, bringing along a friend to whom they had related the story. The boys are disturbed by their friend’s prurient and unsympathetic interest in what transpired and his desire to take something from the scene. These two young boys’ simple empathy to the girl who was the victim tells the reader so much.

I mentioned in last week’s review that I was dissatisfied with the dialogue. Haruf’s dialogue is nothing short of magnificent. He uses a technique that I sometimes find distracting – he doesn’t use quotation marks to identify the dialogue. However, somehow it works in this book. The dialogue is so true, so realistic, that it doesn’t need to be set off in any way. In particular, the McPheron brothers’ dialogue is absolutely dead on right. When I would read their words, it would immediately set me in mind with some of my uncles, or older people I have met in my life, particularly small-town farmers or ranchers. You have to read it to know exactly what I mean. Haruf’s dialogue writing is unbelievably good.

Plainsong is a wonderful, wonderful book. Treat yourself to a read.

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