Like Kent Haruf’s previous novels, Where You Once Belonged (1990) and The Tie That Binds(1984), the latter the winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, Plainsong, as the title suggests, uses simple characters to dramatize basic events. In support of this, the author gives his plot a rural setting, and makes its main characters speak as little as possible. Also, Plainsong is democratic in that it has several protagonists, and it is moralistic in that it condemns its antagonists to the roles of minor characters, in line, perhaps, with how mean-spirited they are.
Except for one chapter a third of the way through, entitled “Ella” after the wife of Tom Guthrie, one of the main characters, and the chapter at the end entitled “Holt” after the town in the story, each chapter is named for the protagonist it features; this stresses these players’ equality, avoids the confusion of switching points of view without warning, and keeps the plot lines clear.
The earlier chapters of Plainsong show the problems of its main characters, and its later chapters show how these problems play out. Though this mechanism gives the impression that the plot is as slow to work itself up as its chief characters are to express themselves, it is faithful to the simple world in which they live and to the unadorned way in which they do so.
Beginning with Tom Guthrie, the cast of main characters presents itself. Guthrie is an American history teacher in the high school in Holt, Colorado. He has two problems to deal with: his wife Ella and one of his students, Russel Beckman. Ella and Guthrie have grown apart, with Ella becoming neurotically vague and remote. She stays in bed, then rents her own house, then moves in with her sister in Denver. At the same time, Guthrie has a fight with Beckman, who is failing the course; one day, Beckman makes a comment that drives Victoria Roubideaux, another student, from the room. When Guthrie tries to make him explain himself, Beckman hits him and runs away. This conflict worsens in a meeting with the principal, Lloyd Crowder, when Beckman’s parents, against all logic, viciously take their son’s side.
Guthrie’s sons, Ike and Bobby, also have a problem: How are they going to get their mother back? This puzzle seems to drive less their curiosity about Sharlene, a high school student they see through the window of an abandoned house naked and having sex with Russel Beckman and, after him, his friend Murphy, than their need for Iva Stearns, an old woman on their paper route whom they help bake cookies and who shows them a photo of herself with her son Albert, who was in the Navy and died in World War II.
Victoria Roubideaux (Vicky), another main character, has problems which stem from her pregnancy. First of all, she is seventeen and a student, and her baby’s father, Dwayne, is out of school and lives in Denver. Her effort to pretend she is not pregnant fails, and her mother disowns her. Maggie Jones, a teacher at the high school, takes her in, but Maggie’s father, who lives with her because he lost his mind to old age, becomes violent toward Vicky, so she must leave. Maggie convinces Raymond and Harold McPheron, old bachelors with a ranch outside town, to let Vicky stay with them, an awkward arrangement at first.
The McPheron brothers, the last of Plainsong’s major characters, have no problems before Vicky appears. It is one thing for them to vaccinate their pregnant heifers (which they do, with Guthrie’s help, in an early scene) and see them through their birthing, for they are adept at treating their livestock; it is quite another for them to deal with Vicky’s pregnancy, especially since their parents were killed when they were boys, and since all they have ever done is run the ranch.
Guthrie, realizing that he and his wife Ella are through with each other, does his best to soften this for his sons by encouraging their access to her. He solves his need for a woman by first sleeping with Judy, the high school secretary, then becoming the lover of Maggie Jones, whose generosity and strength Ella lacks and Guthrie needs. As for Russel Beckman, Guthrie’s battle with him and his parents comes to a head after the boy abducts and humiliates Ike and Bobby; Guthrie comes to blows with Russel and his father on the front porch of the Beckman house. Though he takes a worse beating than he gives, Guthrie proves to them that he will not retreat from any threat they pose to him and his sons.
Ike and Bobby Guthrie try to stay close to their mother. When she first moves out, they buy perfume for her, and even sleep in her bed with her. When she moves to Denver, they stay with her during the Christmas holidays. Eventually, they have to accept that she will not return, and this becomes one of the lessons they begin to learn about life. The sex they see in the abandoned house is another of these lessons, and if they are too young for it to do more...
(The entire section is 2027 words.)