Kent Haruf: “Plainsong”

One of the pure delights in moving to Colorado eleven years ago was discovering a whole new crop of regional writers – in this case, Western writers. If you’ve followed StoryWeb for a while, you know I love American regional literature – especially Southern and Appalachian literature (but throw in a little Sarah Orne Jewett for the Maine coast, why don’t ya?).

I quickly discovered that the West is richly endowed with powerful, powerful writers. Willa Cather helped set the scene, and well-known later writers like Annie Proulx, Pam Houston, Kim Barnes, and Wallace Stegner followed in her footsteps. Up-and-coming writers like Julene Bair delve into issues of great concern to the region.

Among my favorite Western writers is Kent Haruf, whose novels are set on the flat plains of eastern Colorado. This is not a part of the country that gets much attention, and when people hear “Colorado,” they’re thinking Rocky Mountains, not hard-scrabble farming and small-town life on the high arid Plains.

Haruf – who was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and grew up in small towns in eastern Colorado – understood that this seemingly quiet region could be a deep mine of richly lived life. Where better to examine human character, to see what really makes people tick?

Published in 1999, Plainsong is the first novel in Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy set in the fictional community of Holt, Colorado, based on the town of Yuma, where Haruf spent part of his childhood. The novel is quiet indeed. Though the plot lines are unlikely, the characters always ring true. A newly single father struggles to raise his two young sons. Elderly unmarried brothers take in a pregnant teenager. Who knew life in a tiny Colorado town could be so complex and nuanced, so rich and provocative? Haruf knew – and he lets us in on the secrets of small-town life on the Plains.

I have long enjoyed walking in the twilight of the evening just as people are preparing their suppers and turning on their lights. Call me a voyeur if you must, but I love getting glimpses into private homes, seeing how people settle in and comfort themselves after a long day. It is this view of the world – spying (almost) on private lives – that draws me to Kent Haruf’s work. I purely love the way Plainsong opened up a new world to me, a world that, as it turns out, had been there all along.

To learn more about Haruf and Plainsong, read the New York Times’s fine review of the novel as well as the Times’s obituary of the acclaimed writer. Read the final interview with Haruf before his death from lung cancer in 2014. Watch a video tribute to Plainsong, and enjoy a pictorial exploration of Haruf’s fictional Holt County.

Ready to read the book itself? You can start by reading the opening of the book online. Of course, you’ll want a hard copy of Plainsong as this is a book you’ll want to curl up with in an armchair, a good cup of tea at hand.

The next time you drive through Kansas or Nebraska or eastern Colorado and think you’re passing through empty country, read Plainsong and be reminded of the rich lives people live everywhere.