Plainsong by Kent Haruf – review

Plainsong follows the interconnected lives of a few people in a small midwestern town. I’m not sure the town or even the state is ever mentioned but it’s either in or near Colorado for the simple sake of one of the events that take place – not that it really matters anyway. If you have ever been to the great plains, driven across Nebraska or Colorado, it’s easy to picture the type of place in which Haruf has set his story or, if you haven’t, try picturing The Last Picture Show or even some John Wayne flicks if you really want to extend this story into the country side.

But while the setting might be American (mid)west, the story is Noah Baumbach or Atom Egoyan. Laden heavily in the storyline is how the actions (though not necessarily sins) of the parents are visited upon the children, sometimes in the form of physical pain and other times in the form emotional/psychological make-up. When parents are presented, if they’re bad, the kids are generally bad. If the parents are good, the kids are generally alright.

At the same time, Haruf’s tale is rife with dualities. There is Tom Guthrie’s wife and Victoria Robideaux, there are Tom’s sons and the McPheron brothers, Tom Guthrie and the principle, as well as the Guthries and the Beckmans.

The most interesting might be between the McPheron Brothers and Tom’s sons, Ike and Bobby. The McPheron’s steal the novel. They are funny, they are entertaining, they are honest and they are lovable. Ike and Bobby, by contrast, are exactly how you envision two quiet brothers in a small town with primarily only each other as friends: quiet, dedicated, smart, full of empathy and curiosity about the world to a degree that makes them aged beyond their years. In the McPheron’s, you can see where Ike and Bobby could find themselves. In Ike and Bobby you see who the McPheron’s may have once been.

Throughout the novel, women are frankly not treated well. Outside of the McPheron’s and the Guthries, most of the women seem to inhabit a powerless world. With the Guthries it’s somewhat ironic that the wife leaves Tom to move in with her sister and slip into subservience to her sibling.  Tom’s losing his wife is set off by the Beckman’s who, as far as we know, don’t divorce but whose wife is a loud, belligerent woman who yet falls silent when he angry, edge-of-violence husband talks. It appears to be a far less healthy relationship but it is the one perpetuating.

Which likely makes Victoria’s story arc better, as she is faced with similar choices and makes different decisions with the help of her protectors, the McPheron’s.

Of course, it has to be mentioned that Plainsong is also a group of chants of the Roman Catholics. Personally, I don’t have any background in catholicism (greek, roman or otherwise) so there isn’t much i can’t say about this but I am sure it would be an avenue of research for someone curious.

All in all, it was a solid read.

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