Great Plains writer Ian Frazier invites response when he says, “There’s an idea of the Plains as the middle of nowhere, something to be contemptuous of. But it’s really a heroic place.” In earlier civilizations, poets and writers recorded epics about courage and grace. Author Kent Haruf takes that challenge to heart to produce a novel recounting the understated goodness and resolve of people who gain collective strength from the lonely landscape they consider home. The title fits both structure and setting of this not-so-gentle exploration a rural community in eastern Colorado.
Initially, plainsong meant a simple musical form used in the early western church. Listen to a Gregorian chant to understand this uncomplicated structure relying on melody unaccompanied by harmony. In one form, it functions as a call and response, the technique Haruf uses to develop his character-driven novel.
Who would imagine two crusty bachelor brothers living on a cattle ranch 17 miles from town as the rescuers of an abandoned, pregnant 17-year-old or adolescent boys left by their mother? Characters Maggie Jones and Tom Guthrie are more likely champions, though they require aid to overcome difficulty.
Despite dark and troublesome conflicts, Haruf offers help for every need. None of the sympathetic characters faces hardship alone. Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich words sum up the convoluted relationships, “For though love has been ridiculed and disgraced, exchanged, and bartered, dragged through the courts, and sold for 30 pieces of silver, the bright steady glow of its fire still shines on the hearth stones of countless homes.” As basic as an early plainsong, love answers need in this hard land.
Writing like a poet, author Haruf plays with his title. Readers, like redtails riding thermals, soar along as theme and structure weave together lives of flawed humans. As readers finish one page after another of his novel, evidence proves Haruf knows this place some dismissively call The Great American Desert or Flyover Country.
Haruf sings a song of The Plains. He knows its landscape, icons, and rhythms. From the first, he establishes mastery of place: “. . . looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, the increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform.” Who hasn’t watched scarlet rays warm the cold metal of a windmill?
Further into the work, he details a common ranching experience.
“At last there was only the red-legged cow left to test, the one their father warned them about. . . . She regarded the two boys steadily as if she were some wild range animal that had never seen a human on foot before. . . . They were afraid of her and didn’t want to be kicked. . . . She dropped her head and whirled around, stubby tail up, stiffened, and galloped across to the other side. . . . She faced them, her eyes baleful-looking and her sides heaving. . . . She galloped into Bobby, knocking him back off his feet before he could jump out of the way. He landed on his back and bounced once like a piece of thrown stove wood wood. . . . He lay on the trampled dirt look up at the empty sky, trying to breathe.” Ranch kids across this region have left English teachers gripping red pens as they read essays describing this archetypal struggle between youngster and beast.
Plainsong resonates with details that define place. Haruf never misses the mark describing homes, streets, ranchland, red cedars, and solitude. At the end, he pulls the piece together with a familiar scene.
“The two women came out onto the steps of the porch in the evening with the light behind them burning in the kitchen, visible through the open door, backlighting them. . . Their dark hair was damp and their quiet faces were flushed from the hot kitchen, from the cooking. . . . The women looked . . . farther out toward the barn lot and work corral where the three men stood at the fence, each with a booted foot crooked on the bottom rail, an elbow slung over the top rail, comfortable, talking. . . . Now the wind started up in the trees, high up, moving the high branches.
This novel is a hymn to place: a vanished inland sea turned expanse of grass and sky broken by occasional signs of human occupation. It’s a story of uncommon grace, the kind about which South Dakotan Kathleen Norris writes, “If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such trouble recognizing and accepting it. Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.”
Haruf’s unlikely heroes have found such grace.