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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Plainsong

In my part of the world, it's humid, misty and muggy today. It's as close to rain as you can get without actually seeing drops fall on the ground. When we were growing up, this kind of weather was described as being "close out". It was one of those phrases I understood without thinking about it until I moved away and used that expression once where people had never heard it before. It seems a good description though- it's like the sky is close to the earth and it feels like you are covered by a dome or a protective coating. It feels very hushed and quiet out in this pre-storm phase. It's as though nature has just settled in to wait and see if it will storm or not without caring one way or the other on the outcome. It's the absolutely perfect day to curl up with a great book.

"Plainsong", by Kent Haruf would be a good book to read today. I'm almost sorry that I just finished it. "Plainsong", published in 1999, was a National Bestseller and won a book award or two. So I'm a little late finding it, but I discovered it at a flea market a few weeks ago. I like it when books find me at the right time. Maybe I wouldn't have appreciated it so much in 1999 when everyone else was reading it!

Haruf provides the definition for "Plainsong" before the novel begins:

Plainsong- the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times;any simple and unadorned melody or air

This Vintage Contemporary novel is set in the fictional town of Holt Colorado and is just what the title suggests- a simple, unadorned, story. Haruf takes us through the lives of a number of community residents that get twisted together in unusual and unlikely ways. His characters include a couple of young boys, a couple of old bachelor farmers,a pregnant high school girl, and a number of people in-between. Haruf seems to understand all the characters equally well and from the beginning I liked them all. They felt very real. The chapters are short as Haruf flips back and forth between characters telling the story from their perspective. The short chapters make it easy to read in short segments, but you might also be inspired to stay up all night to finish it like I did!

The characters are very well developed in my opinion and I enjoyed following their lives. There was drama and trauma but somehow it seemed like I knew the characters were strong and independent enough that they could make it out the other side without me having to invest a lot of angst in the process. I was involved but distanced and I appreciate that sometimes.

All of the characters have some pretty significant life-altering events occur to them, but as you read, you realize so much of what we experience in life becomes just another chapter and not the ending we anticipated it might be at the time. Life goes on. The characters grow,change, move on, and accept what happens as just part of their story.

I guess when enough people read your book that it becomes a best seller you open up your work for criticism. Some critiques complained that the novel ended too quickly or didn't have enough villains in it. I don't agree. I don't really need evil villains in my life or in my stories. I think enough issues, concerns, and lessons come our way without having to create opponents or finding blame. Seems to me that's what the people of Holt felt. I also appreciate the fact that some of the major events in the characters' lives didn't really get solved. They just "are". Again the characters seemed to recognize that fact and it made them that much more human.

By the end of the book I felt like I had acquired a few more friends that I cared about, felt for, and in many ways admired. I felt touched by the goodness of man-kind, and the strength, love, and wisdom, that can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places and people. It's a story about people helping people, of strong ties and unconditional love.

I might look at people just a bit differently. I appreciate that.

1 comment:

  1. Plainsong is in fact a revolutionary book. Plainsong is the most perfectly named book imaginable. Plainsong by Kent Haruf Plainsong is a slice of life in rural America.