(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Plains Song, for Female Voices contrasts the lives of two women of the Nebraska plains who seemingly have completely different ways of looking at the world. Cora Atkins comes west from Ohio in the early twentieth century to be a farmwife for Emerson Atkins and learns to accept the limitations of such an existence. Sharon Rose Atkins, Cora’s niece, is appalled by the plains life and heads east to discover herself. The lives of four generations of Atkins women are interwoven in this plotless treatment of changes in a way of life.

Sharon’s mother, Belle, is an Ozark hillbilly whose verbosity conflicts with the stoic silence of Cora, Emerson, and Orion, her husband and Emerson’s brother. Belle’s emotional isolation on the Atkins farm ends when she dies giving birth to her second daughter, Fayrene. Cora has only one child, Madge, the result of the first and last sexual act between her and Emerson.

The outgoing Sharon and the passive Madge develop a close relationship, but when Madge marries Ned Kibbee, Sharon feels betrayed by the cousin whose sole function has been to witness her accomplishments: “She was like a calf, bred and fattened for the market, and the buyer had spoken for her.” A music scholarship in Chicago allows Sharon to escape such a fate.

Sharon later tries to save Blanche, Madge’s oldest daughter, from the slavish life she associates with the plains and Cora, but Blanche turns out to be even more sluggishly passive than her mother. Meanwhile, after Emerson dies, Cora descends into madness, finally paying for years of labor and emotional abstinence; Madge becomes an invalid after a stroke and is cared for by Blanche.

When Cora dies, Sharon, now a teacher at Wellesley College, returns to Nebraska for the first time in thirty-three years to discover that she is considered a heroine by some Atkins women. Madge’s daughter Caroline tells her, “we don’t get married anymore unless we want to. We all had your example.” Sharon sees that Cora’s farm is nothing but a field of tree stumps and is frightened by the bleak emptiness, feeling more than ever her obligation to answer the questions Cora was never able—or willing—to ask.