Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review

Plainsong
by Kent Haruf
 
I loved this book’s humanity, its characters, and the author’s craft.
 
This is a story about kindness and decency triumphing over selfishness and cruelty.  This is not a story about characters placed in exceptional situations like in wars or battles but about ordinary people with real-life difficulties exhibiting attributes or defects of character with which readers readily identify. 
 
Plainsong takes place in a small-town rural Colorado community probably in the 1960s.  Tom Guthrie is an American history teacher with eight and nine-year-old sons to raise.  He and his mentally ill wife are estranged.  Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant seventeen-year-old high school student whose mother has banished her from their house.  Harold and Raymond McPheron are two aged bachelor cow farmers who are asked by Maggie Jones, a sympathetic teacher at the high school, to take Victoria in.  Russell Beckman is a selfish, nasty, indolent student in one of Guthrie’s classes.  He and his vicious parents cause Guthrie considerable grief.  Complicating Victoria’s life is the young man who has gotten her pregnant.  Over the course of nine months the lives of these characters change, for better or worse, realistically, inexorably.
 
Kent Haruf writes beautifully.  He places his characters in particular situations and, using third-person narration, tells their stories revealing only their conversations and their actions.  He rarely interjects their thoughts.  We, the readers, are left to hear and witness and judge these characters as we do actual people.  Part of the appeal of this book is the not-immediately-knowing and, consequently, the craving to know why specific characters are in the situations we find them in so that we can project what they might do to rectify them.
 
I especially enjoyed the author’s terse dialogue and frequent use of sensory detail.  You will read no empty dialogue here.  What each character says is to the point and fits.  Haruf has an excellent eye for sensory detail.  He makes use of it without being ostentatious.  What he uses goes beyond what we writers more often than not just make up.  Here is an example:
 
“Guthrie ordered a beer and Monroe drew it and set it down in front of him.  He wiped at a spot on the polished wood but it was something in the grain of the wood itself.”
 
The setting of the novel is as authentic as the characters and their conflicts.  The school has the feel that I knew as a public school teacher.  The activities of the McPheron brothers working their cow farm were detailed and instructive. 
 
If you are looking for affirmation that goodness can overcome the meanness of life, if you care about people, you will enjoy this book.