320 pages, Vintage Contemporaries
Review by: J. S. Colley
Plainsong: noun Unaccompanied church music sung in unison and in free rhythm according to the accentuation of the words
When this book was first published, I got the notion it had something to do with religion. Not that I have anything against religious-themed books, it’s just I wasn’t in the mood to read one. I don’t know where, or why, I got the idea, but perhaps my subconscious made the false connection due to the definition of the one-word title. I decided to read Plainsong only after discovering it was a favorite novel of someone who knows a thing or two about books and whose opinion I respect. (No, I’m not going to name drop.) In any case, I’m glad I decided to read it.
First, I must point out that one of my all-time favorite books is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The reason I loved this book so much was the rhythm, pace, and unadorned writing style. I thought Mr. McCarthy was the pioneer of this method—apparently not. Haruf wrote his book in the same sparse, unsentimental way and it was published before The Road. After thinking about it, I realized there were many other books written in this same manner, such as Angela’s Ashes, and I enjoyed them all.
I once read a review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt that stated it would be the result if McCarthy had a sense of humor. After reading Plainsong, I think The Road would be the result if Haruf had no sense of hope.
While the writing style of the two books is similar, the plots are very different. Plainsong lets the reader eavesdrop on the lives of several people from the small community of Holt County, Colorado through (roughly) one year. Haruf doesn’t tell us what to think about what we witness, or how we should feel, he lets the words and simple movements of the characters tell us, and he lets the pace and rhythm of the writing set the mood.
The central character is Guthrie, a schoolteacher. Through him, we are linked to his two young boys, his estranged wife, new girlfriend, a young pregnant girl and the two old farmer brothers who agree to take care of her when she’s thrown out of her home.
While Hauf doesn’t tidy up every element at the end of the book, we do see how the characters became connected and changed as the result of events that happened during the previous year. The reader is left with a sense of hope that their lives are, or will be, somehow better. The reader is also left with a sense of the bittersweet nature of life—of the almost painfully sad beauty of it.
Plainsong, like its namesake, is simple and unadorned and, when told in unison, the story of each of the characters creates a tender harmony.