Likely Stories: Plainsong

Feb 2, 2017

Lyrical, pleasant story of a half-dozen characters in Haruf's fictional town of Holt, CO.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

About a year and a half ago, I reviewed the splendid and tender novel, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  Plainsong now comes to you highly recommended.  Haruf provided clues to the novel with a definition, “Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; a simple and unadorned melody or air.”  Plainsong is a perfect title for a perfect novel.

The story revolves around a number of interesting characters.  The history teacher, Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, Ike and Bobby; Victoria Robideaux, a teenager thrown out of her home by her mother; Maggie Jones, a colleague of Tom’s, who decides to help Victoria; two bachelor ranchers, Raymond and Harold, who take Victoria into their home, and Ella, Tom’s wife, who suffers some psychological problems; and finally, the town of Holt itself.  All these characters live quiet lives trying to survive day to day.

Ella is living separately from Tom and the boys, and she decides to move to Denver.  Tom brings the boys for a visit before she leaves.  Haruf writes, [Ike and Bobby] climbed out of the pickup and walked one after the other up the sidewalk and knocked on the door and stood waiting without turning to look back at him, and then she opened the front door.  She had changed clothes since the afternoon and now she was wearing a handsome blue dress.  [Tom] thought she looked slim and pretty framed in the doorway.  She let them in and closed the door, and afterwards he drove up Chicago Avenue past the little houses set back from the street in their narrow lots, the lawns in front of them all brown with winter and the evening lights turned on inside the houses and people sitting down to dinner in the kitchens or watching the news on television in the front rooms, while in some of the houses some of the people too, he knew well, were already starting to argue in the back bedrooms” (118-119)

Ike and Bobby visit an elderly woman to collect the weekly newspaper route money.  She intimidated the boys a bit, but they were polite.  On one such visit, Haruf wrote, “She shuffled into the next room and came back carrying a flat and ragged cardboard box, and set it on the table and removed the lid, then she showed them photographs that had been much-handled in the long afternoons and evenings of her solitary life, photographs that had been lifted out and examined and returned to the black picture book album, the album itself of an odd shape and style.  They were all of her son, Albert.  ‘That’s him,’ she told them.  Her tobacco-stained finger pointed at one of the photographs.  ‘That’s my son.  He died in the war.  In the Pacific’” (149-150).  I once ran errands for an elderly woman who was bed ridden.  She chain-smoked as she dug in her purse for a quarter.

This story won’t make you cry.  It is the “comfort food” of reading.  These steady, good people living their lives reminded me of Thoreau who wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  I had a tough time putting down this quiet read for quiet times.  Plainsong by Kent Haruf is a novel you won’t soon forget.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!