Plainsong, Kent Haruf

Plainsong is the first installment of Kent Haruf’s high plains trilogy.  Haruf’s novels Eventide (2004) and Benediction (2013) conclude the trilogy.  Plainsong is an American masterpiece. It delivers a smack down, a couple of knockout punches. You are left wondering what just hit you.

The story revolves around a small Colorado high plains community and the simple people who live there. These characters resonate with the reader. They will remain on the edges of your mind far after the last chapter is finished.   

Holt’s tiny high plains community unfolds like a map in your mind as the story progresses. Holt is Kent Haruf’s singular creation.  The reader familiar with the high plains east of Denver will catch traces of the actual communities of Fort Morgan, Brush, Sterling, and Holyoke.  

Holt could be so many small communities on the Colorado high plains that have seen better days and have been left to winds, heat, snow, and sorrow.  One sees the remnants of these communities if he or she is willing to travel off the interstate. Haruf was born and raised in Colorado and his familiarity with the plain landscape reads like a tribute. 

The image of an abandoned homestead with its falling-down windmill and water tank is an endearing one. Coloradans know well high plains grasses blowing in a constant stiff wind. The Colorado high plains are a forlorn, lonely, and tough country.  

Plainsong is at times witty and profound. Kent Haruf gives the reader equal doses and darkness and light. A plainsong is the hymnal sung by the community faithful in the Christian church. 

Plainsong presents a number of intertwined stories that knit together into a community quilt. There is Victoria Robideaux, a young girl who does not know her father. She is abandoned by her mother after becoming pregnant. She has nowhere to turn… until the local social worker places her in the hands of two elderly bachelor farmers on their isolated ranch 17 miles south of Holt.  These ranchers – the McPherson Brothers – are two of the greatest character ever dreamed of in Colorado folklore. 

There is the local high school teacher Tom Guthrie raising two young sons alone after his wife and their children’s mother falls into mental illness. Guthrie will face his toughest battle. Guthrie’s sons Ike and Bobby will come of age among these fallen-down homes and ranches.  

Plainsong takes an unflinching look at the human condition. The novel explores the need to hold on to place and a sense of place that is passing… and to withstand the bright lights of modern Denver which looms seemingly just beyond the western horizon.

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