Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
Plains Song, for Female Voices is the last novel Morris wrote and arguably one of his best. A fitting capstone to a distinguished literary career, the book received the prestigious American Book Award for Fiction in 1981. In this book, Morris returns to the Nebraska setting he had so painstakingly covered in previous Nebraska novels such as The Home Place, The Works of Love, and Ceremony in Lone Tree. This time, however, he tells his story through the eyes of three women, Cora, Madge, and Sharon Rose Atkins. In doing so, he employs third-person and omniscient narration to evoke a provocative and passionate view of women.
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The only child of a widowed father and the matriarchal figure in the novel, Cora marries to please her father and moves west with her husband, Emerson. However, the thought of having sexual intercourse so terrifies Cora that she bites her knuckle to the bone during the first and last time she has sex with him. Their passionless relationship produces only a single child, Madge, who later marries a local Nebraska boy, Ned Kibbie. The other key character in the novel is Sharon Rose, the daughter of Emerson’s brother, Orion, and Belle Rooney, the bride he transports from the Missouri Ozarks to Nebraska. After Belle’s untimely death, Madge and Sharon grow up like sisters, even though they have markedly different temperaments. Madge embraces her domestic life and finds satisfaction in her role as wife and mother, but Sharon rejects the Plains and marriage altogether in favor of Chicago, music, and university life.
Although Cora seems to be an unlikely matriarch with little worldly experience, she is faithful to her heritage and embodies several key human values Morris had explored in earlier fiction about the Great Plains. In so doing, she becomes one of the most powerful forces in the novel, representing as she does the bedrock home-place values of hard work, abstinence, frugality, and independence. By contrast, Sharon stands in opposition to the figure Cora represents, and she realizes early on that such a life carries with it a number of limitations that stifle emotional and intellectual growth. As a substitute for marriage, Sharon finds solace in music, and to combat loneliness, she cultivates numerous friendships with women.
During the course of the novel, Sharon returns to Nebraska only three times, but the final visit is the most enlightening, coming as it does upon Cora’s death. Although Sharon had rejected the life of her childhood, the passing of Cora awakens her sensibility to several profound realizations. Foremost among them is a newfound awareness of her own unshakable and subliminal emotional attachment to the Plains and a realization that the lives of women such as Cora, for all their foibles, can be valued, not merely for their integrity, but also for their refusal to submit wholly to masculine culture. More important, she learns that even though in her own life she has rejected traditional paternal values, she has not rejected humanity.