November 17, 2010
Plainsong: True Family

Plainsong by Kent Haruf has been a popular selection from the Indiana Humanities Council’s Novel Conversations program. It’s a contemporary story set in a small town called Holt, Colorado, which is part of the charm. The characters and their lifestyle reflect the western Great Plains, a place with vast distances where horses and cattle are part of the everyday environment.

In Plainsong we find a lot of single people who are trying to be part of a family and not quite succeeding. As the story opens, a mother is preparing to leave her husband and two sons to live in Denver. Victoria, a teenage girl, is pregnant, but her boy friend has also taken off for the big city and does not seem to be interested in her any more. A schoolteacher, Maggie Jones, tries to give her a place to live, but Maggie’s elderly father, suffering from dementia, cannot cope with what he thinks is an intruder.

Against these rather depressing circumstances, author Kent Haruf sets a plot twist that gives the novel an extraordinary spark. Maggie decides to ask two old bachelor brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, to let Victoria live with them on their cattle ranch. Completely perplexed, but too humane to turn down the bizarre request, the McPherons agree. A family, and eventually a baby, is born.

I was reminded of one of my favorite characters in literature, Joe Gargery from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Rough but kindhearted, and very funny, his inherent decency puts to shame the pretentions of his social superiors.

Haruf works in many subtle touches. Through vignettes depicting the farm animals, the young boys growing up abandoned by their mother, Maggie’s advances to their newly single father, and the demise of an old lady to whom the boys deliver newspapers, we see cycles of birth and death, youth and age, companionship and loneliness.

Our reading groups often report that “everyone loved this book.”  The Novel Conversations collection also has copies of its sequel, Eventide.

Written by Nancy Conner, director of grants at the Indiana Humanities Council & coordinator of Novel Conversations.

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