by Kent Haruf

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375705854
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/22/2000
Series: Contemporaries Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 72,960
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

KENT HARUF is the author of five previous novels (and, with the photographer Peter Brown, West of Last Chance). His honors include a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation; he was also a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award. He died in November 2014, at the age of seventy-one.


South Central Mountains of Colorado

Date of Birth:

February 24, 1943

Place of Birth:

Pueblo, Colorado


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 sighed comfortably.



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.


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.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide


"A novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has power to exalt the reader." —Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Times

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Kent Haruf's Plainsong. We hope they will provide you with new angles from which to approach and discuss this powerful tale of seven lonely lives set on the stark but beautiful High Plains of Colorado.

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

1. How does Kent Haruf's writing style change from his first novel to his last, the National Book Award finalist Plainsong? What is the effect of Haruf's style in each and use of language on the reader?

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?

Customer Reviews

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Plainsong 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 163 reviews.
Brandi31 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had heard about Plainsong but had not read it. When I heard stories on PBS about the death of Kent Haruf, I took advantage of my new proficiency with Nook to find out why it had such a following. At first, I had trouble with the lack of quotation marks and other road signs we are used to as readers. I even put it down and considered giving up on it. There are too many books out there that are easy to read. I'm glad I went back. Once I accepted it as a narrative, as if Haruf were sitting on the porch swing telling the story, I got into connecting the dots between what at first seemed like a series of vignettes with little to pull the characters together. After reading it, I found that it continues to slip back into my thoughts. It will probably go down as a favorite read in my life. Different, but well done and a welcome change to the books that are easy to read, and too easy to forget.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
From the first words to the last a delightful story . Just what I needed .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the simplicity of the story that relayed some serious life concerns and plausible ways to deal with them. It showed the values of a community helping one another.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well told story about everyday people really mas you appreciate the quality of the writing. A book you can't wait to pick back up again.
BigSher More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such a beautifully written story by this gifted author.
mgoodrich718 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This man can write, don't miss this great story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful, gritty, human, rural story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have loved this book for years.
BRMiller More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a good read !! I would like to be neighbors with the townpeople and farmers/ranchers, good hearted, lovable
Eunie More than 1 year ago
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
Stef14 More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. Even months after reading it, it is like a movie running throught my head. The characters were so well developed. growing up in a ranching comunity I have to admit that their manerism described so many people I know. I could not put the book down. It touched me so much that I still get the chills thinking about it. Yes, there were some graphic parts, but for some reason I think they were necessary for the book to be what it was. Real... Lets face it real life is graphic. The way that the story lines of all the characters wove together and how they all afected the others lives left me in awe. beautiful, wonderful, powerful.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Lets hope after 300 long pages we get some character development. Not a page turner, but not bad on the other hand. One of those books when your friends see left on your coffee table, they think you are smart. Too many situations that made me feel uneasy. Glad I finished/got it over with.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and couldn't put it down. The 'agape' love woven throughout the book was beautiful. The characters were very well developed and multi-faceted. A wonderful read, complete with difficult passages and truths.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is a good book that has a very interesting story line. It kept me reading and interested through the entire book. i would recomend that you read this book if you like those kind of stories that everything goes wrong and in the end eveything gets better. I would sugest that if swearing and graphic delails bother you, this book is not for you. All in all, its a good read and worth your time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Plainsong, accurately named, is one of the most wonderful novels I have read. It tells of a complex tale, where the characters are constantly weaving in and out of each other, and yet there is a simplicity to the straightforward country tale. It is graphically written with simple language and structure. The novel remains easy to understand, telling things as they are. My favorite characters are the brothers: both pairs. I love the relationship between Bobby and Ike honest, childlike and real. They have a bond that Haruf portrays without many words spoken between the two of them. The McPheron brothers have a more developed relationship, more or less an older version of the younger boys. They continually make me laugh they are so simplistic, honest and kind it creates heartache for the ¿good ol¿ days¿. Their initial kindness and growing tenderness toward Victoria are nothing short of endearing their uncomplicated, contented lifestyle subtly reinforces what should be most important in life. There are many more elements, characters and themes that lace this novel and yet this is just a mere review. I greatly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it be read.