Plainsong

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Overview

"With Plainsong, [Kent Haruf] has conjured up an entire community, and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas.  He has written a compelling and compassionate novel." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Haruf's unforgettable tale is both emotionally complex and elemental, following, as it so gracefully does, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth." -BooklistNominated for the National Book Award, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Unabridged on audio

A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and ...

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Plainsong

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Overview

"With Plainsong, [Kent Haruf] has conjured up an entire community, and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas.  He has written a compelling and compassionate novel." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Haruf's unforgettable tale is both emotionally complex and elemental, following, as it so gracefully does, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth." -BooklistNominated for the National Book Award, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Unabridged on audio

A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver. 

In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether.  A teenage girl - her father long since disappeared, her mother unwilling to have her in the house - is pregnant with nowhere to go.  And out in the country, two brothers, elderly bachelors, work the family homestead, the only world they've ever known.

From these unsettled lives emerges a vision of life, and of the town and landscape that bind them together - their fates somehow overcoming the powerful circumstances of place and station, their confusion, curiosity, dignity and humor intact and resonant.

Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a story to care about, believe in and learn from.

"Plainsong is nothing short of a revelation." - Richard Russo

Author Biography: Kent Haruf's The Tie That Binds received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation.  Also the author of Where You Once Belonged, he lives with his wife, Cathy,in Murphysboro, Illinois, and teaches at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

1999 National Book Award nominee for Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Critically acclaimed author Kent Haruf, the recipient of a PEN/Hemingway special citation and a Whiting Award for his debut novel, The Tie That Binds, follows with the intensely affecting story of family, tribulation, and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver. In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher struggles to raise his two sons alone; a pregnant teenager, deserted by her older boyfriend, is cast out of her mother's house; two elderly brothers, lifelong bachelors, farm their declining family homestead. Despite differences of place and station in life, Haruf's unforgettable characters come together to survive, with their confusion, dignity, and humor intact and resonant.
Joshua Klein
Kent Haruf's third novel Plainsong-- already been nominated for the National Book Award--indicates just how much the novel has resonated with readers. Haruf himself must be surprised, but not that surprised: A professor at Southern Illinois University and an honest-to-goodness son of a preacher, Haruf is so adept at capturing the heart of an innocent side of America that it's hard to believe anyone wouldn't be affected by his work. Plainsong is set in Holt, Colorado, a rural community well outside Denver; the setting is timeless, with only the occasional, fleeting reference to VCRs or pop culture indicating that the book takes place closer to "now" than "then." Tom Guthrie is a high-school teacher left raising two young sons after his depressed and disappointed wife moves to the city. His children bake cookies, ride horses, and run a paper route, but at the same time they almost consciously seek out a cool, hardened, cowboy sense of maturity.

Meanwhile, another teacher helps a pregnant teen disowned by her mother find love and acceptance in two hilariously well-intentioned elderly brothers. The two tentatively take the girl on as a boarder on their cattle farm even though they barely know how to communicate with anyone but each other. These seven characters form the core of Plainsong, which switches vantages from chapter to chapter like a more direct Faulkner, though the prose is no less poetic and evocative. Through this device, Haruf illustrates how relationships are formed and what makes them last, how responsibility and accountability make people good, and how cooperation can make a small town strong in times of conflict. A fast, encouraging, enlightening read, Plainsong is beautiful, real, and wise: a true great American novel.

Verlyn Klinkenborg
Haruf has made a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader...At times, a sentence almost suggests Flannery O'Connor...But the prose and the outlook are always Haruf's own.
NY Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
...[a plainspoken and moving novel] that weaves together the voices of half a dozen people living in a small Colorado town and turns their overlapping stories into a powerful portrait of a community...
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the same way that the plains define the American landscape, small-town life in the heartlands is a quintessentially American experience. Holt, Colo., a tiny prairie community near Denver, is both the setting for and the psychological matrix of Haruf's beautifully executed new novel. Alternating chapters focus on eight compassionately imagined characters whose lives undergo radical change during the course of one year. High school teacher Tom Guthrie's depressed wife moves out of their house, leaving him to care for their young sons. Ike, 10, and Bobby, nine, are polite, sensitive boys who mature as they observe the puzzling behavior of adults they love. At school, Guthrie must deal with a vicious student bully whose violent behavior eventually menaces Ike and Bobby, in a scene that will leave readers with palpitating hearts. Meanwhile, pregnant teenager Victoria Roubideaux, evicted by her mother, seeks help from kindhearted, pragmatic teacher Maggie Jones, who convinces the elderly McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, to let Victoria live with them in their old farmhouse. After many decades of bachelor existence, these gruff, unpolished cattle farmers must relearn the art of conversation when Victoria enters their lives. The touching humor of their awkward interaction endows the story with a heartwarming dimensionality. Haruf's The Tie That Binds descriptions of rural existence are a richly nuanced mixture of stark details and poetic evocations of the natural world. Weather and landscape are integral to tone and mood, serving as backdrop to every scene. His plain, Hemingwayesque prose takes flight in lyrical descriptions of sunsets and birdsong, and condenses to the matter-of-fact in describing the routines of animal husbandry. In one scene, a rancher's ungloved hand repeatedly reaches though fecal matter to check cows for pregnancy; in another, readers follow the step-by-step procedure of an autopsy on a horse. Walking a tightrope of restrained design, Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which revelations of character and rising emotional tensions are held in perfect balance. This is a compelling story of grief, bereavement, loneliness and anger, but also of kindness, benevolence, love and the making of a strange new family. In depicting the stalwart courage of decent, troubled people going on with their lives, Haruf's quietly eloquent account illumines the possibilities of grace. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
Set in a small Colorado town, this novel centers on townspeople whose lives interconnect. The chapters alternate among the stories of these ordinary people. Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher who is left to raise his two sons, Ike and Bobby, when their mother descends into mental illness. At the same time, Tom is having trouble at school with a violent student. Victoria is a pregnant teenager whose mother has thrown her out of the house. The two elderly McPheron brothers are bachelors who live their solitary lives on their land. Maggie, another teacher at Guthrie's school, arranges for Victoria to live with the McPheron brothers, whose social skills are somewhat lacking but who try in their awkward ways to make Victoria feel at home. Although all the characters' troubles and worries are captivating, it is Victoria's problem that is most likely to engage teen readers. Handled by a lesser writer, some of these plots would be predictable, but Haruf's prose transcends any formula. The writing is simple and understated, with no quotation marks around the dialogue. The novel has a timeless quality to it. This gentle book is a beautiful read, appropriate for high school collections and public library young adult collections. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 1999, Random House, 301p, $24. Ages 16 to Adult. Reviewer: Alice F. Stern

SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)

KLIATT
To quote KLIATT's July 2000 review of the Recorded Books audiobook edition: There's Guthrie, a high school history teacher whose wife has left him and their two young sons. There's Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teen. There's Harold and Raymond McPheron, two elderly bachelor farmers. These and a handful of minor characters in the rural outpost of Holt, Colorado become connected throughout this elegant novel in strange and wondrous ways. They inspire us with their goodness and generosity as we identify with their humanity and failings. Haruf manages to avoid sentimentality, maintaining a sense of humor and toughness that assures us things will work out somehow, no matter how bleak. Some of his bleaker realism, however, is unsuitable for younger listeners. (Editor's note: this is a National Book Award finalist.) KLIATT Codes: A*—Exceptional book, recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House/Vintage, 302p, 21cm, 99-15606, $13.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Chuck Trapkus; Rock Island, IL, November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Library Journal
Two bachelor farmer brothers, a pregnant high school girl, two young brothers, and two devoted high school teachers--this is the interesting group of people, some related by blood but most not, featured in the award-winning Haruf's touching new novel. Set in the plains of Colorado, east of Denver, the novel comprises several story lines that flow into one. Tom Guthrie, a high school history teacher, is having problems with his wife and with an unruly student at school--problems that affect his young sons, Ike and Bob, as well. Meanwhile, the pregnant Victoria Roubideaux has been abandoned by her family. With the assistance of another teacher, Maggie Jones, she finds refuge with the McPheron brothers--who seem to know more about cows than people. Lyrical and well crafted, the tight narrative about how families can be made between folks who are not necessarily blood relatives makes for enjoyable reading. Highly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/99.]--Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-This saga of seven residents of Holt, CO, details the problems they face and how they come together to solve them. Their divergent stories begin with Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher whose wife suffers a breakdown and abandons him and their two young sons. The Guthrie boys are often on their own while their stressed-out father struggles to keep the family together. Next are Victoria Roubideaux, 17 years old, alone, and pregnant; and Harold and Raymond McPheron, two elderly brothers who know nothing about "real life" outside their farm. It is Maggie Jones, Tom's colleague, who provides him with solace and brings resolution to these many dilemmas. Maggie talks the McPheron brothers into taking the pregnant teenager in, even though they have some reservations about this arrangement. Victoria and the two lonely men adjust to one another and form a family unit that none of them has known before. The characters tell their stories in alternating chapters. All of them are struggling but it is their caring, kindness, and forgiving spirits that help them support one another. There is a keen sense of place here-a place where family and community matter. YAs can learn from this novel about nontraditional families, about small towns where everybody knows everybody else's business, and about the power of love.-Carol Clark, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
A stirring meditation on the true nature and necessity of the family. Among the several damaged families in this beautifully cadenced and understated tale is that of Tom Guthrie, a high-school history teacher in small Holt, Colorado, who's left to raise his two young sons, Ike and Bobby, alone when his troubled wife first withdraws from them and then, without explanation, abandons them altogether. Victoria Roubideaux, a high-school senior, is thrown out of her house when her mother discovers she's pregnant. Harold and Raymond McPheron, two aging but self-reliant cattle ranchers, are haunted by their imaginings of what they may have missed in life by electing never to get married, never to strike out on their own. Haruf (Where You Once Belonged, 1989, etc.) believably draws these various incomplete or troubled figures together. Victoria, pretty, insecure, uncertain of her own worth, has allowed herself to be seduced by a weak, spoiled lout who quickly disappears. When her bitter mother locks her out, she turns to Maggie Jones, a compassionate teacher and a neighbor, for help. Maggie places Victoria with the McPheron brothers, an arrangement that Guthrie, a friend of both Maggie and the McPherons, supports. Some of Haruf's best passages trace with precision and delicacy the ways in which, gradually, the gentle, the lonely brothers and Victoria begin to adapt to each other and then, over the course of Victoria's pregnancy, to form a resilient family unit. Harold and Raymond's growing affection for Victoria gives her a sense of self-worth, which proves crucial when her vanished (and abusive) boyfriend, comes briefly back into her life. Haruf is equally good at catching the ways inwhich Tom and his sons must quietly struggle to deal with their differing feelings of loss, guilt, and abandonment. Everyone is struggling here, and it's their decency, and their determination to care for one another, Haruf suggests, that gets them through. A touching work, as honest and precise as the McPheron brothers themselves.
From the Publisher
"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely . . . it has the power to exalt the reader." —The New York Times Book Review

"Resonant and meaningful . . . . A song of praise in honor of the lives it chronicles [and] a story about people's ability to adapt and redeem themselves, to heal the wounds of isolation by moving, gropingly and imperfectly, toward community." —Richard Tillinghast, The Washington Post Book World

"A compelling and compassionate novel. . . . [With] his sheer assurance as a storyteller, [Mr. Haruf] has conjured up an entire community, and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." —Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

"Haunting, virtuosic, inimitable." —Sarah Saffian, San Francisco Chronicle

"If the novelist invents a world, then Mr. Haruf has shaped a place of enormous goodness... The story itself—spare, unsentimental, rooted in action—honors the values of the community it describes." —Lisa Michaels,

"A moving look at our capacity for both pointless cruelty and simple decency, our ability to walk out of the wreckage of one family and build a stronger one where that one used to stand." —Jeff Giles, Newsweek

"A work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov." —Jon Hassler, Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375406188
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 814,310
  • Lexile: 770L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Award, a Stegner Award, a Frank Waters Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. His novel Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in his native Colorado.

Biography

Though many readers know Kent Haruf as the author of 1999's acclaimed novel Plainsong, Haruf had already made an auspicious debut with The Tie That Binds in 1984. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. Some short stories appeared in literary magazines, but it was another nine years before Haruf surfaced again on the bookshelves.

Despite the long gestation period, Plainsong yielded rich returns. The story weaves together several characters: pregnant 17-year-old Victoria Roubideaux; the McPherons, an elderly pair of cattle rancher brothers who take Victoria in; Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, abandoned by their depressed mother; and a high school teacher who knows them all, Maggie Jones. Each chapter is titled for one of the characters, carrying the reader along with one or another as all of them intersect. Nominated for the National Book Award, Plainsong became a bestseller and was warmly reviewed. "It has the power to exalt the reader," the New York Times Book Review declared.

Plainsong, which derives its title from the unadorned vocal music often sung in Christian churches, is aptly named. The tale is simply told, the action moves slowly, and dialogue resides within the text, unframed by quotation marks. All of Haruf's novels are set in the High Plains community of Holt, in eastern Colorado -- a fictional town much like the ones Haruf grew up in. "In the Plains, things are stripped down to the essentials, and that seems to fit what [Plainsong] is about and that seemed to be an obvious setting for this story," he says in a publisher's interview. The rhythms of nature and simple work are a latticework underlying the author's stories. Like the landscape of the setting, the progression of Haruf's tales is subtle. He is a thoughtful, understated writer who writes with a restrained sympathy for his characters, even when they seem not to warrant much.

Haruf revisited some of Plainsong's characters in Eventide, continuing Victoria's story as she heads off to college and bringing both tragedy and renewal to the McPheron brothers. The theme of unconventional family units continues, as does the mixing of modern urban problems and simple rural life. An 11-year-old orphan cares for his grandfather; a mother of two copes with being abandoned by her husband; and a mentally disabled couple struggle to keep their family intact.

Like his later novels, The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged feature Haruf's straightforward narrative style and rural setting. However, both have a sharper edge and more explosive content, dealing with hard crimes and focusing more on individual characters. Tie focuses on one woman's tragic life story of family sacrifice; Belonged tells about the crimes inflicted on the town of Holt by one of its former residents, an ex-football hero.

Haruf's stories end as openly as they begin; though well crafted and thoroughly imagined, they are not about tight plot construction or surprising twists. Instead, Haruf is more concerned with expressing emotional truths. "Our lives are generally pretty messy," Haruf told the Kansas City Star in a 2000 interview about Plainsong. "What I want to suggest at the end [of the book] is that at this point, at least this day and this point in their lives, all these people have found a place in a small community -- it may even be an extended family -- in which they can connect with other people and find solace and communion."

Good To Know

Over the years, Haruf has worked as at a variety of places, including: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska.

Haruf lives with his wife Cathy. Between them, the two have eight children from previous marriages. Haruf has three daughters.

Haruf taught at Southern Illinois University before the profits from Plainsong allowed him to retire and move back to Colorado.

Plainsong was made into a CBS TV movie in 2004. Rachel Griffiths starred as Maggie.

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    1. Hometown:
      South Central Mountains of Colorado
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 24, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pueblo, Colorado
    1. Education:
      B.A., Nebraska Wesleyan University, 1965; M.F.A., Iowa University (Writers' Workshop), 1973

Read an Excerpt

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and 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, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform. After a time he put out the cigarette and went upstairs and walked past the closed door behind which she lay in bed in the darkened guest room sleeping or not and went down the hall to the glassy room over the kitchen where the two boys were.

The room was an old sleeping porch with uncurtained windows on three sides, airy-looking and open, with a pinewood floor. Across the way they were still asleep, together in the same bed under the north windows, cuddled up, although it was still early fall and not yet cold. They had been sleeping in the same bed for the past month and now the older boy had one hand stretched above his brother's head as if he hoped to shove something away and thereby save them both. They were nine and ten, with dark brown hair and unmarked faces, and cheeks that were still as pure and dear as a girl's.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

You boys better come on, Guthrie said.

He watched their faces, standing at the foot of the bed in his bathrobe. A tall man with thinning black hair, wearing glasses. The older boy drew back his hand and they settled deeper under the cover. One of them sighedcomfortably.

Ike.

What?

Come on now.

We are.

You too, Bobby.

He looked out the window. The sun was higher, the light beginning to slide down the ladder of the windmill, brightening it, making rungs of rose-gold.

When he turned again to the bed he saw by the change in their faces that they were awake now. He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed. When he returned to the hallway he could hear them talking in their room, their voices thin and clear, already discussing something, first one then the other, intermittent, the early morning matter-of-fact voices of little boys out of the presence of adults. He went downstairs.

Ten minutes later when they entered the kitchen he was standing at the gas stove stirring eggs in a black cast-iron skillet. He turned to look at them. They sat down at the wood table by the window.

Didn't you boys hear the train this morning?

Yes, Ike said.

You should have gotten up then.

Well, Bobby said. We were tired.

That's because you don't go to bed at night.

We go to bed.

But you don't go to sleep. I can hear you back there talking and fooling around.

They watched their father out of identical blue eyes. Though there was a year between them they might have been twins. They'd put on blue jeans and flannel shirts and their dark hair was uncombed and fallen identically over their unmarked foreheads. They sat waiting for breakfast and appeared to be only half awake.

Guthrie brought two thick crockery plates of steaming eggs and buttered toast to the table and set them down and the boys spread jelly on the toast and began to eat at once, automatically, chewing, leaning forward over their plates. He carried two glasses of milk to the table.

He stood over the table watching them eat. I have to go to school early this morning, he said. I'll be leaving in a minute.

Aren't you going to eat breakfast with us? Ike said. He stopped chewing momentarily and looked up.

I can't this morning. He recrossed the room and set the skillet in the sink and ran water into it.

Why do you have to go to school so early?

I have to see Lloyd Crowder about somebody.

Who is it?

A boy in American history.

What'd he do? Bobby said. Look off somebody's paper?

Not yet. I don't doubt that'll be next, the way he's going.

Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate. He looked up again. But Dad, he said.

What.

Isn't Mother coming down today either?

I don't know, Guthrie said. I can't say what she'll do. But you shouldn't worry. Try not to. It'll be all right. It doesn't have anything to do with you.

He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating altogether and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses were.

You better go on, he said. By the time you get done with your papers you'll be late for school.

He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn't say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

Do you want anything? he said.

She didn't bother to open her eyes. He waited. He looked around the room. She had not yet changed the chrysanthemums in the vase on the chest of drawers and there was an odor rising from the stale water in the vase. He wondered that she didn't smell it. What was she thinking about.

Then I'll see you tonight, he said.

He waited. There was still no movement.

All right, he said. He stepped back into the hall and pulled the door shut and went on down the stairs.

As soon as he was gone she turned in the bed and looked toward the door. Her eyes were intense, wide-awake, outsized. After a moment she turned again in the bed and studied the two thin pencils of light shining in at the edge of the window shade. There were fine dust motes swimming in the dimly lighted air like tiny creatures underwater, but in a moment she closed her eyes again. She folded her arm across her face and lay unmoving as though asleep.

Downstairs, passing through the house, Guthrie could hear the two boys talking in the kitchen, their voices clear, high-pitched, animated again. He stopped for a minute to listen. Something to do with school. Some boy saying this and this too and another one, the other boy, saying it wasn't any of that either because he knew better, on the gravel playground out back of school. He went outside across the porch and across the drive toward the pickup. A faded red Dodge with a deep dent in the left rear fender. The weather was clear, the day was bright and still early and the air felt fresh and sharp, and Guthrie had a brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it and stood for a moment looking at the silver poplar tree. Then he got into the pickup and cranked it and drove out of the drive onto Railroad Street and headed up the five or six blocks toward Main. Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.


From the eBook edition.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and 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, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform. After a time he put out the cigarette and went upstairs and walked past the closed door behind which she lay in bed in the darkened guest room sleeping or not and went down the hall to the glassy room over the kitchen where the two boys were.

The room was an old sleeping porch with uncurtained windows on three sides, airy-looking and open, with a pinewood floor. Across the way they were still asleep, together in the same bed under the north windows, cuddled up, although it was still early fall and not yet cold. They had been sleeping in the same bed for the past month and now the older boy had one hand stretched above his brother's head as if he hoped to shove something away and thereby save them both. They were nine and ten, with dark brown hair and unmarked faces, and cheeks that were still as pure and dear as a girl's.

Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.

You boys better come on, Guthrie said.

He watched their faces, standing at the foot of the bed in his bathrobe. A tall man with thinning black hair, wearing glasses. The older boy drew back his hand and they settled deeper under the cover. One of them sighed comfortably.

Ike.

What?

Come on now.

We are.

You too, Bobby.

He looked out the window. The sun was higher, the light beginning to slide down the ladder of the windmill, brightening it, making rungs of rose-gold.

When he turned again to the bed he saw by the change in their faces that they were awake now. He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed. When he returned to the hallway he could hear them talking in their room, their voices thin and clear, already discussing something, first one then the other, intermittent, the early morning matter-of-fact voices of little boys out of the presence of adults. He went downstairs.

Ten minutes later when they entered the kitchen he was standing at the gas stove stirring eggs in a black cast-iron skillet. He turned to look at them. They sat down at the wood table by the window.

Didn't you boys hear the train this morning?

Yes, Ike said.

You should have gotten up then.

Well, Bobby said. We were tired.

That's because you don't go to bed at night.

We go to bed.

But you don't go to sleep. I can hear you back there talking and fooling around.

They watched their father out of identical blue eyes. Though there was a year between them they might have been twins. They'd put on blue jeans and flannel shirts and their dark hair was uncombed and fallen identically over their unmarked foreheads. They sat waiting for breakfast and appeared to be only half awake.

Guthrie brought two thick crockery plates of steaming eggs and buttered toast to the table and set them down and the boys spread jelly on the toast and began to eat at once, automatically, chewing, leaning forward over their plates. He carried two glasses of milk to the table.

He stood over the table watching them eat. I have to go to school early this morning, he said. I'll be leaving in a minute.

Aren't you going to eat breakfast with us? Ike said. He stopped chewing momentarily and looked up.

I can't this morning. He recrossed the room and set the skillet in the sink and ran water into it.

Why do you have to go to school so early?

I have to see Lloyd Crowder about somebody.

Who is it?

A boy in American history.

What'd he do? Bobby said. Look off somebody's paper?

Not yet. I don't doubt that'll be next, the way he's going.

Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate. He looked up again. But Dad, he said.

What.

Isn't Mother coming down today either?

I don't know, Guthrie said. I can't say what she'll do. But you shouldn't worry. Try not to. It'll be all right. It doesn't have anything to do with you.

He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating altogether and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses were.

You better go on, he said. By the time you get done with your papers you'll be late for school.

He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn't say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

Do you want anything? he said.

She didn't bother to open her eyes. He waited. He looked around the room. She had not yet changed the chrysanthemums in the vase on the chest of drawers and there was an odor rising from the stale water in the vase. He wondered that she didn't smell it. What was she thinking about.

Then I'll see you tonight, he said.

He waited. There was still no movement.

All right, he said. He stepped back into the hall and pulled the door shut and went on down the stairs.

As soon as he was gone she turned in the bed and looked toward the door. Her eyes were intense, wide-awake, outsized. After a moment she turned again in the bed and studied the two thin pencils of light shining in at the edge of the window shade. There were fine dust motes swimming in the dimly lighted air like tiny creatures underwater, but in a moment she closed her eyes again. She folded her arm across her face and lay unmoving as though asleep.

Downstairs, passing through the house, Guthrie could hear the two boys talking in the kitchen, their voices clear, high-pitched, animated again. He stopped for a minute to listen. Something to do with school. Some boy saying this and this too and another one, the other boy, saying it wasn't any of that either because he knew better, on the gravel playground out back of school. He went outside across the porch and across the drive toward the pickup. A faded red Dodge with a deep dent in the left rear fender. The weather was clear, the day was bright and still early and the air felt fresh and sharp, and Guthrie had a brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it and stood for a moment looking at the silver poplar tree. Then he got into the pickup and cranked it and drove out of the drive onto Railroad Street and headed up the five or six blocks toward Main. Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.

Copyright© 1999 by Kent Haruf. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. Why might Kent Haruf have chosen Plainsong as the title for this novel? What meaning, or meanings, does the title have in relation to Haruf's story and characters?

2. How does the small town of Holt figure as a character in each novel? How are the characters in each of the novels completely believable and different? How does Haruf repeat some character traits in his novels and to what effect? How do the characters and the image of the town change from book to book?

3. Few hints are given in the novel about what life might have been like for the Guthrie family before Ella left. What do you imagine that life to have been like? What sort of a marriage did Tom and Ella have, and what made it go wrong? What might account for Ella's nearly total withdrawal even from the children she seems to love?

4. How do the three teenagers having sex in the abandoned house inform and affect Ike and Bobby? What does this sight tell them about sex? About love? About the relationships and power struggle between men and women?

5. Do you believe there are marked differences between Raymond and Harold McPheron? If so, what are they?

6. Why do you think the McPheron brothers have chosen to spend their lives together rather than start families of their own? Are they lonely or unhappy before Victoria's arrival, or do they feel sufficient in themselves? What does Maggie mean when she tells them, "This is your chance" [p. 110]?

7. What parallels can you draw between the McPheron brothers and the young Guthrie boys? Why is the relationship so close in each case? What sort of a future do you see for the Guthrie boys? Do you think they will marry and have families?

8. The McPheron brothers think they know nothing about young girls. Is that the case? Has their solitary life close to the earth handicapped them so far as human relations go, or has it, in fact, provided them with hidden advantages?

9. What examples of parents abandoning children--either by desertion, emotional withdrawal, or death--can be found in this novel? What do these incidents have in common? How does abandonment affect children, and how does it shape their lives and relationships?

10. It is usually women who are portrayed as nurturers, but in this novel, men--Tom Guthrie and the McPheron brothers--provide shelter and comfort. How do men differ from women in this respect? What do these men offer that a woman might not be able to?

11. "These are crazy times," Maggie Jones says. "I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever" [p. 124]. What does she mean by this? In what way are our times "crazier" than earlier eras? How does such "craziness" affect the lives of young people such as Victoria, Ike, and Bobby?

12. What motives and feelings might have driven Tom to sleep with Judy when it was really Maggie he was interested in? Why might Maggie have seemed momentarily frightening or intimidating to him?

13. Why do the Guthrie boys befriend Iva Stearns? What are they looking for in this tentative friendship? Do they find what they are seeking?

14. Why do the Guthrie boys go to the McPheron brothers after Iva's death rather than to someone closer to home, like their father or Maggie? Is there any indication that they connect Iva's death with their mother's abandonment? Why do they place their mother's bracelet on the train tracks, then bury it?

15. The inhabitants of Holt and its surroundings are extremely laconic: they speak only sparingly, as though they mistrust words. What might cause this? In what way does it affect the characters' relationships with one another?

16. How would you describe Holt, Colorado? What are its limitations, its disadvantages, and what are its strengths? In what ways is it typical of any American small town, and in what ways is it different? What help does it provide for people who need healing, like the characters in this book?

17. Plainsong depicts some unusual "family" groups. How might Kent Haruf define family?

18. For general discussion of Kent Haruf's works -- a. How does Kent Haruf's writing style change from his first novel to the National Book Award finalist Plainsong? What is the effect of Haruf's style in each and use of language on the reader?

-- b. How does the small town of Holt figure as a character in each novel? How are the characters in each of the novels completely believable and different? How does Haruf repeat some character traits in his novels and to what effect? How do the characters and the image of the town change from book to book?

Suggested Reading from the Publisher

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; Willa Cather, My Ántonia; William Faulkner, Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury; Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain; David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars; Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time; Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow; Cormac McCarthy, The Border Trilogy; Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance; William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness; Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist, Ladder of Years; Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples, The Optimist's Daughter.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 120 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(50)

4 Star

(41)

3 Star

(16)

2 Star

(10)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 120 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 26, 2009

    Plainsong

    A inside look at small town life is exactly what you get from Plainsong, a novel by Kent Haruf. Holt, Colorado is a typical small town with its fair share of drama and problems. This story of unlikely friends brought together by their family problems is heartwarming and will leave you wanting more.
    At first glance Holt might seem like the perfect small town, but at a closer look you will see that it has a set of problems. A pregnant teen that gets kicked out of her house and Tom Guthrie's wife leaving him to raise two young boys on his own a just a couple of difficulties the town experiences. Luckily there are people with big hearts to help them out.
    Maggie Jones offers Victoria a place to stay, but after her father and Victoria have a conflict it is clear it isn't going to work. So Raymond and Harold McPherons offer for her to go stay with them. It is a weird considering that the McPherons brothers are old farmers that had never lived with a girl except their mother who died when they were young. The relationship they form is what makes this story heartwarming and inspirational.
    Another odd relationship that is formed is between the Guthrie boys and an old lady that lives in an apartment. After their mother leaves them she is one of the few women that they have in their lives. She enjoys the boys company because she doesn't have any other visitors. They form a great relationship that helps the boys through the tough time in their lives. In the little town when things seem like they are falling apart it seems like there is always someone there to catch it, but can it stay that way forever?
    Overall, Plainsong is an excellent book that people that like to learn about small town life would love. The story is heartwarming, inspirational and can provide hope to people that are at a tough point in their life.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2008

    Yuck- That's all I can say

    My library is one that does not have alot of good books. Most of them are stupid, secular books that have no theme and no character devolopment. When I read the info on what this book was about, I literally thought to myself, 'Ok, this is going to be one of the rare books that is pretty good and well-written.' Well, about four chapters into the book, I realized that this book was the same, if not worse, than the others. I guess maybe I'm being paranoid, but it had every bad word in the English language multiple times. Almost all of the book dealt with adult content that young adults should not be reading, and there was absolutely nothing to learn. The characters had no development, there was no real plot, and even though I read it in one day, I can say that this is one that I will talk to my library about removing to save all the other teens from reading a book that is not worth reading.

    3 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2012

    A Small Story Simply Told...Lovely

    This book is so quiet and spare that it took a while to fall into it's rhythm. Once I did, I was up reading it to the end. It reminded me of the best short stories, those that make every word and gesture count. No action to speak of, just a small cast of characters who you know about as well as anyone else does by the end of the book. Intimate and enchanting. As soon as I finished I was out looking to see what else he'd written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 18, 2008

    Amazing Powerful story

    This book is amazing, you feel the way the characters feel, the book is brought to life. The story is one that many girls face when becoming pregnant at an early age this book can give them hope that even in the worst situations you survive and endure way more than expected.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    Peaceful

    Real people, real places. Down to earth.

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  • Posted December 29, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Simple elegance

    Some interpret the word "simple" in a derogatory manner, but I use it here as a high compliment. I appreciate authors who can tell a story in a clean, clear concise manner, and this book does that. It's such a sweet, kind and graceful tale of everyday people experiencing everyday life. I gave this book as a gift for Christmas, and I have given it on other occasions as well. The sequel is also wonderful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2013

    Excellent

    Such a beautifully written story by this gifted author.

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  • Posted April 29, 2013

    Plainsong By Kent Haruf 4 Stars cross posted to Share A Shelf

    Plainsong By Kent Haruf

    4 Stars

    cross posted to Share A Shelf

    The good reads just continue for this month! Spectacular recommendations I've had for books. I will say that this is tagged funny, however I am not at all sure why.

    Like a comfortable old shoe I immersed myself in Holt County in this wonderful book by Kent Haruf. The title says a lot about the book. One definition of Plainsong is any simple unadorned melody or air. Holt is simplicity, an unadorned place on the map. Plainsong can also mean a chant that builds and that also happens here, a crying out from the people of Holt.

    This is a story of different people living in the same area dealing with the complexities of even their simple lives. This is farming country, things are handled simply and no one wants to bother anyone with their troubles. Some don't even know what it is they needed or lacked until someone comes along and they realize. There is a pregnant 17 year old who has been disowned by her mother. A teacher who is lonely and his two young boys who have been left by their wife and mother. Two old farming bachelors who are set in their ways discover there is room for a change even 17 miles from anywhere.

    This is a poignant novel, you feel for this place and these lives that are contained there. I couldn't put it down. It transported me back to my childhood and rural country. To a simpler time and age. There were still problems of course and there always will be but it felt good remembering how that life was and how much I miss it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2013

    Lovely

    This man can write, don't miss this great story

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2012

    Gorgeous

    Beautiful, gritty, human, rural story

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2012

    Just Okay

    This book was pick for reading in our book club. I felt it was okay. I held my attention however, it did not seem to develope the characters in the book to a great degree. I would not have chosen this book to read if it had not been in our book club. I also thought for the content of the book it was a bit expensive.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2012

    I have loved this book for years.

    I have loved this book for years.

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  • Posted November 29, 2010

    VERY moving; couldn't put it down

    This was my first read from Kent Haruf. The hardships and happiness in this novel are believable and well built (there's got to be a better word... it's just GREAT!). Being from a small midwest town myself, I was amazed by the details that were placed perfectly. This book is a great read and you will not want to put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Very Northern Midwestern

    Very much a northern, small town, midwestern story. It is a story in "black and white." Not colorful. But.....it is the way people live, think, problem solve up there. A sweet story with realistic events.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2009

    Plainsong

    It's a good read !! I would like to be neighbors with the townpeople and farmers/ranchers, good hearted, lovable

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  • Posted April 21, 2009

    A Story of Fragmented Lives Intertwined

    Holt is a small town in eastern Colorado where young boys on bicycles deliver papers in the early morning hours and collect each month from their patrons. It's a place where everyone knows everyone and where their problems and their successes become the main topic of conversation among the citizens. The "good" guys are: Tom Guthrie a conscientious high school teacher; his two young boys who long for their mother, lost in a deep depression; Victoria a shy, pregnant seventeen-year-old girl, whose mother has kicked her out of her home; two old farmer brothers, Raymond and Harold, openhearted and generous, who have lived together all of their lives; Maggie Jones, also openhearted and generous, also a high school teacher who cares for her aged father stricken with a form of dementia; and the old lady who lives and dies in her apartment above the barbershop. The "bad" guys in this story are: the father of the baby, Victoria carries; the local barber who has a tight, mean heart; the spoiled-rotten high school boy and his parents who enable their son to be a failure; the pregnant girl's mother; and the boys' aunt, sister to their mother, so insensitive as to be cruel.
    In this story of fragmented lives intertwined, we see how even non-related people can become family. Plainsong, also now a movie, is an excellent story. Eunice Boeve, Author of Ride a Shadowed Trail

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2008

    Loved It

    So good, I read about a third of the book in one sitting and had to tear myself away to make it last longer. The characters to begin with, play at the readers heartstrings and only grow into more deeply lovable characters, flaws and all. This book deals with real issues but manages not to focus solely on the tragedy and mistakes made but that some good can come out of their troubles. I didn't want it to end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2008

    Kent Haruf - fantastic author

    I just recently discovered Kent Haruf's books. His writing is amazing..would compare him with Elizabeth Berg and Pat Conroy. I certainly hope he is at work on another book. Would recommend this author to anyone who totally enjoys reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2008

    A reviewer

    Outstanding book. Written beautifully, yet a storyline one cannot put down - a rare combination. As a total 'city kid' I thought I couldn't relate to these mid-western characters they are people and characters so deep yet easy to understand, that you won't be able to put it down and will suddenly wish you actually knew your neighbors.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2007

    Simply Wonderful

    One of my favorite reads for a long time. The author's writing style seems deceptively simple, yet he conveys so very much reality, in its beauty and in its pain. I fell in love with the McPherons, and found myself wishing they were my 'grandfathers!' I'm not sure how this book could have been longer, but I wish it had been.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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