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By Kent Haruf
New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-40618-2
301 pages

Bob Corbett
May 2015

When I came across the novel “Plainsong” I was quite puzzled. My four years of undergraduate college were in a Roman Catholic seminary and I was in the schola (the Latin name we used for our plainsong choir) where we sang almost exclusively “plainsong,” more frequently called Gregorian chant in my seminary. Plainsong was not accompanied by any instrument, not even the organ, and is monophonic with a single melodic line.

I had no idea what this novel was about or what the title could have meant. Thus I was quite surprised to discover it was set near the turn of the 21st century in a tiny rural town in Colorado, far enough east of Denver to be said to be on the plains. This leads me to believe the title is somehow a play on two concepts:

Life in the American plains, and life of fairly simple people who live fairly simple and even open lives free of much of the complexity of big city life, thus the title, Plainsong. However, since the fictional town is east of Denver.

We follow two main story lines. One is of Tom Guthrie and his family. He is separated from his wife who is having mental problems and he lives with his two young sons. He is a teacher of history at the local high school.

The second main line is essentially the story of Victoria Roubideaux, a student at the high school who is in Tom Guthrie’s history class. She had sex with a boy in a near-by town and is pregnant, which is becoming obvious to all, and she is fairly much alone, her family having kicked her out. She is temporarily living with Maggie Jones, a female teacher at the high school, but when the teacher’s aging and demented father begins to attack Victoria, Maggie calls on two quite elderly brothers who have a small cattle farm just outside town. They have lived there like hermits for years, but Maggie knows they are decent people and she asks them to help Victoria in her desperate situation. They not only take her in, but become very decent grandfatherly figures and take care of her in her nearly hopeless situation.

We follow the complexities of these two situations which slowly come to join each other, and in the process we get to know the town fairly well.

The novel is brilliantly written. Very little of real “note” happens. It is a tale of everyday events in an everyday small town. Nothing is much of a surprise, nothing very noteworthy or “special” or “different” happens. It is truly a song of a plain place, with quite ordinary people doing quite ordinary things.

Nonetheless, I was gripped by the story and the telling of it. Author Kent Haruf has a marvelous ability to make the everyday, the ordinary sound extraordinary in this setting. What I found most remarkable is how drawn into the lives of these simple people I became and how much I cared about them. The main characters were decent but imperfect people, dealing with life as it came at them. There were no real heroes, no exceptionally extraordinary acts. This is the story of plain folks living decent lives in a quite simple environment, even a relatively bleak environment, yet I couldn’t put the novel down and read it through in a very few sittings.

I am looking forward to reading more of Kent Haruf and he seems to have two later novels with similar titles that sound like they may, somehow be related - Eventide and Benediction. I plan to look into those in the near future.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett