Plainsong

Hardcover | October 15, 1999

byKent Haruf

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A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver.
In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl -- her father long since disappeared, her mother unwilling to have her in the house -- is pregnant, alone herself, with nowhere to go. And out in the country, two brothers, elderly bachelors, work the family homestead, the only world they've ever known.

From these unsettled lives emerges a vision of life, and of the town and landscape that bind them together -- their fates somehow overcoming the powerful circumstances of place and station, their confusion, curiosity, dignity and humor intact and resonant. As the milieu widens to embrace fully four generations, Kent Haruf displays an emotional and aesthetic authority to rival the past masters of a classic American tradition.

Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a novel to care about, believe in, and learn from.

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From Our Editors

A touching, elegant novel which discusses the meaning of life from the perspective of three different generations of people all living in the same town. First, there's the high school teacher forced to raise his two boys alone after their mother leaves. We also meet a pregnant teenage girl banned from her own house. Finally, there are ...

From the Publisher

A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver.In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl -- her father long since disappeared, her m...

From the Jacket

A heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver.In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl -- her father long since disappeared, her m...

Kent Haruf's The Tie That Binds received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. Also the author of Where You Once Belonged, he lives with his wife, Cathy, in Murphysboro, Illinois, and teaches at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:320 pages, 9.55 × 6.48 × 1.14 inPublished:October 15, 1999Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375406182

ISBN - 13:9780375406188

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Read from the Book

Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. When the sun reached the top of the windmill, for a while he watched what it was doing, that increased reddening of sunrise along the steel blades and the tail vane above the wooden platform. After a time he put out the cigarette and went upstairs and walked past the closed door behind which she lay in bed in the darkened guest room sleeping or not and went down the hall to the glassy room over the kitchen where the two boys were.The room was an old sleeping porch with uncurtained windows on three sides, airy-looking and open, with a pinewood floor. Across the way they were still asleep, together in the same bed under the north windows, cuddled up, although it was still early fall and not yet cold. They had been sleeping in the same bed for the past month and now the older boy had one hand stretched above his brother's head as if he hoped to shove something away and thereby save them both. They were nine and ten, with dark brown hair and unmarked faces, and cheeks that were still as pure and dear as a girl's.Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.You boys better come on, Guthrie said.He watched their faces, standing at the foot of the bed in his bathrobe. A tall man with thinning black hair, wearing glasses. The older boy drew back his hand and they settled deeper under the cover. One of them sighed comfortably.Ike.What?Come on now.We are.You too, Bobby.He looked out the window. The sun was higher, the light beginning to slide down the ladder of the windmill, brightening it, making rungs of rose-gold.When he turned again to the bed he saw by the change in their faces that they were awake now. He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed. When he returned to the hallway he could hear them talking in their room, their voices thin and clear, already discussing something, first one then the other, intermittent, the early morning matter-of-fact voices of little boys out of the presence of adults. He went downstairs.Ten minutes later when they entered the kitchen he was standing at the gas stove stirring eggs in a black cast-iron skillet. He turned to look at them. They sat down at the wood table by the window. Didn't you boys hear the train this morning?Yes, Ike said.You should have gotten up then.Well, Bobby said. We were tired.That's because you don't go to bed at night.We go to bed.But you don't go to sleep. I can hear you back there talking and fooling around.They watched their father out of identical blue eyes. Though there was a year between them they might have been twins. They'd put on blue jeans and flannel shirts and their dark hair was uncombed and fallen identically over their unmarked foreheads. They sat waiting for breakfast and appeared to be only half awake.Guthrie brought two thick crockery plates of steaming eggs and buttered toast to the table and set them down and the boys spread jelly on the toast and began to eat at once, automatically, chewing, leaning forward over their plates. He carried two glasses of milk to the table.He stood over the table watching them eat. I have to go to school early this morning, he said. I'll be leaving in a minute.Aren't you going to eat breakfast with us? Ike said. He stopped chewing momentarily and looked up.I can't this morning. He recrossed the room and set the skillet in the sink and ran water into it.Why do you have to go to school so early?I have to see Lloyd Crowder about somebody.Who is it?A boy in American history.What'd he do? Bobby said. Look off somebody's paper?Not yet. I don't doubt that'll be next, the way he's going.Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate. He looked up again. But Dad, he said. What.Isn't Mother coming down today either?I don't know, Guthrie said. I can't say what she'll do. But you shouldn't worry. Try not to. It'll be all right. It doesn't have anything to do with you.He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating altogether and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses were.You better go on, he said. By the time you get done with your papers you'll be late for school.He went upstairs once more. In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn't say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.Do you want anything? he said.She didn't bother to open her eyes. He waited. He looked around the room. She had not yet changed the chrysanthemums in the vase on the chest of drawers and there was an odor rising from the stale water in the vase. He wondered that she didn't smell it. What was she thinking about.Then I'll see you tonight, he said.He waited. There was still no movement.All right, he said. He stepped back into the hall and pulled the door shut and went on down the stairs.As soon as he was gone she turned in the bed and looked toward the door. Her eyes were intense, wide-awake, outsized. After a moment she turned again in the bed and studied the two thin pencils of light shining in at the edge of the window shade. There were fine dust motes swimming in the dimly lighted air like tiny creatures underwater, but in a moment she closed her eyes again. She folded her arm across her face and lay unmoving as though asleep.Downstairs, passing through the house, Guthrie could hear the two boys talking in the kitchen, their voices clear, high-pitched, animated again. He stopped for a minute to listen. Something to do with school. Some boy saying this and this too and another one, the other boy, saying it wasn't any of that either because he knew better, on the gravel playground out back of school. He went outside across the porch and across the drive toward the pickup. A faded red Dodge with a deep dent in the left rear fender. The weather was clear, the day was bright and still early and the air felt fresh and sharp, and Guthrie had a brief feeling of uplift and hopefulness. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it and stood for a moment looking at the silver poplar tree. Then he got into the pickup and cranked it and drove out of the drive onto Railroad Street and headed up the five or six blocks toward Main. Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.

Bookclub Guide

US1. Why might Kent Haruf have chosen Plainsong as the title for this novel? What meaning, or meanings, does the title have in relation to Haruf's story and people?                                 2. How does Haruf characterize the landscape of Holt and its surroundings, and how does he use landscape to set the emotional scene? In what ways are his characters shaped and formed by the land around them?         3. Few hints are given in the novel about what life might have been like for the Guthrie family before Ella retreated. What do you imagine this family life to have been like? What sort of a marriage did Tom and Ella have, and what made it go wrong? What might account for Ella's nearly total withdrawal even from the children she seems to love?         4. What is it about Victoria's life that has made her choose Dwayne -- an outsider to the community, in fact an unknown -- to fall for? What lack or emptiness in her own life is she trying to fill with this romance? How does her relationship with him echo her parents' relationship?         5. How does their view of the three teenagers having sex in the abandoned house inform and affect Ike and Bobby? What does this sight tell them about sex? About love? About the relations and power struggle between men and women?         6. Do you see marked differences between Raymond and Harold McPheron? If so, what are they?         7. Why do you think the McPheron brothers have chosen to spend their lives together rather than to start families of their own? Are they lonely or unhappy before Victoria's arrival, or do they feel sufficient in themselves? What does Maggie mean when she tells them, "This is your chance" (110)? 8. What parallels can you draw between the McPheron brothers and the young Guthrie boys? Why is the relationship so close in each case? What sort of a future do you see for the Guthrie boys? Do you think they will marry and have families? 9. The McPheron brothers think they know nothing about young girls; is that true? Has their solitary life, close to the earth, handicapped them so far as human relations go, or has it, in fact, provided them with hidden advantages? 10. What examples of parents abandoning children -- either by desertion, emotional withdrawal or death -- can be found in this novel? What do all these incidents have in common? How does abandonment affect children, and how does it shape their later life and relationships?         11. It is usually women who are portrayed as nurturers, but in this novel men -- Tom Guthrie and the McPheron brothers -- provide shelter and comfort. How do men differ from women in this respect? What do these men offer that a woman might not be able to?         12. "These are crazy times," Maggie Jones says. "I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever" (124). What does she mean by this? In what way are our times "crazier" than earlier eras? How does such "craziness" affect the lives of young people such as Victoria, Ike and Bobby? 13. What motives and feelings might have driven Tom to sleep with Judy when it was really Maggie he was interested in? Why might Maggie seem momentarily frightening or intimidating to him?         14. Why do the Guthrie boys befriend Iva Stearns? What are they looking for in this tentative friendship? Do they find what they are seeking?         15. Why do the Guthrie boys go to the McPheron brothers after Iva's death, rather than to someone closer to home, like their father or Maggie? Is there any indication that they connect Iva's death with their mother's defection? Why do they place their mother's bracelet on the train tracks, then bury it?         16. The inhabitants of Holt and its surroundings are extremely laconic: they speak only sparingly, as though they mistrust words. What might cause this silence? In what way does it affect the characters' relationships with one another? 17. How would you describe Holt, Colorado? What are its limitations, its disadvantages, and what are its strengths? In what ways is it typical of any American small town, and in what ways is it different? What help does it provide people who need healing, like the characters in this book?                         18. Plainsong depicts some unusual "family" groups. How might Kent Haruf define family?

From Our Editors

A touching, elegant novel which discusses the meaning of life from the perspective of three different generations of people all living in the same town. First, there's the high school teacher forced to raise his two boys alone after their mother leaves. We also meet a pregnant teenage girl banned from her own house. Finally, there are the two elderly bachelors farming on the outskirts of town. Plainsong shows how their experiences bind them together to a place where their circumstances don't hold them down.

Editorial Reviews

advance praise for Plainsong"Kent Haruf's new novel Plainsong is nothing short of a revelation. I don't expect to read a better novel this year. Or next, for that matter."                                                              --Richard Russo"I read Plainsong in one sitting, unwilling--unable--to look up until I'd finished. Kent Haruf has given us a pure blessing of a book: a novel of such sheer sweet amplitude, grace and humanity."                                                                --Beverly Lowry"Plainsong is the marvelous story of how seven extraordinary members of a tiny prairie community--two dedicated teachers, two young boys wise beyond their years, a pair of wonderfully idiosyncratic rancher brothers and a pregnant high school girl--come together, in the face of great difficulties, to form the most appealing extended family in contemporary fiction. With Plainsong, Kent Haruf has written an American masterwork: a profound, witty, warmhearted and tough-minded account of a place where family and community still come first. Plainsong is the best new novel I've read since Cold Mountain."                                                                  --Howard Frank Mosher"Plainsong is a beauty, as spare and heartbreaking as an abandoned homestead cabin, always tough but humane, never sentimental. I loved the prose, as bright and hard as the winter sun sparkling off a sandy snowbank, and the characters, scrubbed to their essentials by the extremes of the Great Plains weather. It's a story that draws the reader like a heat mirage."                                                             --James  Crumley