Book Review: “Plainsong”

One of the biggest surprises last Christmas actually arrived a few days afterward, when an unexpected A-to-Z logo’d box arrived in my mailbox, small and mysterious and completely without context. Surely I’d remember if I had ordered something from Amazon…?

Inside was a slim volume accompanied by a gift receipt. The volume was Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and it was a gift from my blogger pal in PA, Jim of Serotoninrain fame. Quite unexpected, and very much appreciated, it was.

I vaguely remembered Jim’s review of the book, and to say that he liked it would be a crass understatement. But Jim’s, well…you know…a sensitive guy, and I wasn’t sure that the book would have a similar appeal for me.

I finally finished the other two books I had started and read Plainsong over a period of a couple of days. It’s right at 300 pages but it should read faster than that…only Haruf’s writing often requires that you read passages more than once, not because they’re incomprehensible the first time around but because they’re exquisite and fascinating and once just isn’t enough.

Jim describes the book better than me; read his review. I didn’t like the ending; it feels unfinished, too many issues left unresolved, and I suppose this is intentional given that Haruf continues with the characters in Eventide, which Jim also reviews here. Haruf’s habit of omitting all quotes to indicate dialog borders on cuteness and takes some getting used to. But I have to tell you that the scenes with Victoria, a pregnant teen and the two aging, never-married rancher brothers she moves in with after she’s evicted from her home are among the most moving and true-ringing passages that you’ll ever lay eyes on. Those chapters alone make the book worth the modest investment.

I’ve already thanked Jim privately for the thoughtfulness of the surprise, but I want to also acknowledge his generosity publicly, and give a plug for a book that he feels strongly about. As a complete, standalone work, it didn’t “exalt me” (as the New York Times quote on the cover seemed to promise), but the brilliant and moving passages were more than sufficient to make it memorable.

I feel the need to point out that Plainsong is not a book for children or those who are easily offended by “strong language and adult situations.” Some might also be dismayed by the realities of life on a working ranch.