Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

So many people have recommended Kent Haruf to me, for his pared down style and description of what one might call ‘heartland’ America in the fictional town of Holt in the prairies of East Colorado.

Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums.

I personally hate flat, wide-open country. It feels more suffocating to me than mountains, and it’s this suffocation in the small town in the middle of nowhere that Haruf captures so well in his trilogy. He also uses flat, plain, unadorned language which fits well with this landscape (and with the simple church music that the title Plainsong refers to).

I started with his first novel to be written in his distinctive utilitarian style (although he published a couple of novels before that with the same kind of setting). Plainsong describes the lives of several individuals and families in a small farming community: aging brother farmers, who understand each other almost without words; a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother who is taken in by the old farmers although they don’t know much about women; young boys whose mother suffers from depression and leaves home, leaving them with their baffled schoolteacher dad; another schoolteacher who helps the pregnant girl, although her own father is proving a handful with his dementia.

The stories build up gradually, patiently, layer after layer, from small details, everyday observations and the different points of view. No insight into the characters’ inner feelings other than what they say or do. Yet by the end you feel you know them well.

At times the style can grate on you and feel drab and repetitive. To think that I was afraid my sentences were too long! Here is a typical one:

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.

But the advantage with this minute observational style is that it keeps both the writer and the reader at arm’s length, prevents the story from descending into melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of elements here that could have veered into cliche territory in the hands of another writer. Here, it feels like a universal and timeless story. Or at least, a universal story for the American rural community, that ferocious mix of cruelty and kindness, of stubbornness and innocence. Life is hard, unsparing for pretty much everyone, but it is what it is. And those patient, uncomplaining people make the best of it. It’s the small examples of humanity and the survival instinct of the pioneers who headed west that inspire Haruf’s work, although a few of his characters fall by the wayside.

There are also moments of almost reluctantly poetic descriptions too, but nothing is overdone:

The empty house… The broken –down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read more of Kent Haruf, I will feel that his trilogy could be the quintessential Great American Novel.

10 thoughts on “Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong”

  1. The polysyndeton in that long sentence makes it rather Cormac McCarthy-esque, which is something I’ve never previously thought about Haruf! It’s been years since I read Plainsong, but I remember loving it…

  2. That’s the sort of place rural America really is, Marina Sofia. So I’m glad that you thought it was depicted well here. And it’s interesting how that sparse language adds to the overall sense of the place. I may have to try this one…

  3. One of my favourite books of all time. I was worried you might not like it and then I’d have post a long comment defending its beauty. Whew.

  4. I have not heard of this novel, but it definitely sounds something I will enjoy reading. I love the novel extracts you inserted. I am becoming more and more appreciative of novels involving a number of central characters and interlocking stories.

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