A book with a one word title, Plainsong by Kent Haruf
At its core, Plainsong is a series of vignettes portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of small town living. Readers are privy to the thoughts and actions of several characters thanks to a shifting narrative perspective that shores up the interconnectedness of small-town life. We see a cast of characters that individually appear to have nothing in common, but when viewed as a whole, we see how their stories intertwine and overlap as it only can in a small town. These folks are simple, with simple ideas, but at times, they are able to recognize the complexity of their world, and they rise or fail to meet these challenges and support one another.
Our cast of characters includes Guthrie, local high school history teacher and his two young boys. At the outset of the story, Guthrie’s wife is severely depressed and in the process of leaving him and the children. We see his and the children’s points of view several times throughout the story. The other main protagonist is pregnant high school student Victoria Robadeaux, disowned by her own mother due to the unexpected pregnancy. Victoria seeks shelter and assistance from Mrs. Jones, another teacher, who has a love interest in Guthrie. Mrs. Jones initially attempts to care for Victoria, but she ends up moving her in with the elderly brothers who are friends of both she and Guthrie.
While the novel’s content is mainly uplifting, there are also pockets of very awkward, off-putting encounters peppered throughout, reminding us of both the benefits and drawback to living in close quarters with others. For example, we see the overwhelmingly positive of the brothers taking Victoria in, accepting her, loving her, and ultimately protecting her. We see the community work together to try and protect and save this young girl—Guthrie stands up for her to the peril of his own career, Mrs. Jones attempts to help her, etc. Yet we also see the ugliness of humanity in the mother’s depression/abandonment of her children, the young boys watching the sex scene in the abandoned cabin, Guthrie’s troubled student bullying the boys, Victoria at the party, etc. These scenes all hint at an underlying darkness in the town/nature of man, and as readers, we are left with the ultimate decision on the true nature of humanity—are we inherently good, bad, or really a balance of the two? My takeaway is the latter—we all strive for goodness, but at times we must succumb to the worst in us. I use Guthrie in this example; he is a great father, tries to do right by his estranged wife, but at times he lets his anger rule him—when he physically assaults the troubled student in the hallway and later when he goes to the bully’s home and threatens him not to touch his children. Ultimately, we all strive for good but will have moments of weakness, and that’s okay.
Please bear in mind that this is the first book in a series, which I did not know before reading, so the novel’s conclusion may leave you wanting if you don’t read the rest of the books. However, I felt like it came to a fairly satisfying conclusion, and I do not think I’ll be rushing to read the following books in the series. Haruf’s writing is decent—he has a plain, masculine style (think almost Hemingway-esqe) to his prose that mirrors the “simple folk” of his characters. It’s pleasant but not my favorite style.