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February 6, 2001

Booksby J. Gary Walker

By Kent Haruf
Vintage, 1999

A Plainsong, according to Kent Haruf is "any simple and unadorned melody or air." That definition sets the tone perfectly for this graceful, yet slightly rough-around-the-edges book set in the plains of Colorado. A powerful study on the need for kindred spirits, this book examines the lives of a group of misfits who have no family to speak of, at least not in the conventional sense. The story takes place in Holt, Colorado, a small town where everyone knows the business of everyone else.

Tom Guthrie is a high-school teacher whose wife, for whatever reason, cannot function well enough to help him raise their two sons, Ike and Bobby. The Guthrie boys are spending long hours on their own after their mother leaves them, and while their overwhelmed father, Tom, a high-school teacher, is distracted by the threats of a violent student. Harold and Raymond McPheron are two bachelor brothers who know very little about the world beyond their homestead. Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant, homeless 17-year-old with no place to go. The characters all share a common bond with one another. They have all suffered some type of loss. The McPherons lost their parents early on, leaving them as orphans, and with only each other as family. The Guthrie boys have lost their mother, Tom has lost his wife, and Victoria her mother. It is at this point that Maggie Jones, another teacher, serving as a catalyst, causes all of their lives to intersect. She persuades Victoria to go live with the two elderly McPheron brothers, who know more about cattle than about teenage girls. Some of the best passages in the book describe the ways in which the brothers and Victoria slowly begin to adapt to each other and then, over the course of Victoria's pregnancy, form a family unit. Harold and Raymond's affection for Victoria becomes most apparent when the father of her baby, a vanished, abusive boyfriend, comes back into her life. There are some wonderful parallels drawn between the lives of the two sets of brothers, who seem to share some sort of a kinship with each other. The Guthrie boys seem drawn to the older brothers, who are friends of their father, and eventually to Victoria as well.

There's not much suspense here, and not many plot twists will take you by surprise. What will surprise you is the wonderful dialogue, which is at once spare and then rich but never, ever exaggerated or heavy-handed. As in real life, Haruf shows us that silence speaks more loudly at times than any words can. The story maintains a slow, steady rhythm, never breaking stride for one moment, all the while telling a tale of struggle; the simple elements of the story often belie the emotional complexity just beneath the surface. Kent Haruf seems to suggest that, all other things being equal, it's decency, and a stubborn determination to care for one another that gets these people through.


J. Gary Walker is a freelance writer who resides in Mobile, Alabama


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