Book Review: Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Rating: 4/5

A high school teacher faces the challenge of raising his two young sons alone after their mother retreats into a deep depression. A pregnant teenage girl — abandoned by her boyfriend, fatherless, and thrown out of her house by a hard-hearted mother — struggles to find her way alone. An eccentric pair of brothers live and work on their family homestead twenty miles out of town. This is the world of Plainsong, a quiet novel set in a small town on the windswept plains east of Denver. Life in Holt, CO moves slowly, deliberately. Everyone knows everyone else, and relationships — enmities, friendships, and romances alike — often exist equally in both the privacy of home and in the gossip at the local diner.

I, like many Americans, am a sucker for well-told tales about small towns. In that regard, Plainsong does not disappoint. Kent Haruf has crafted a beautiful story of decency and togetherness, simply told, without a hint of bombast or sentimentality. It is a book of few words and myriad actions, demonstrating in starkly evocative prose the capacity of the human heart for everything from the worst kinds of violence to the purest kindness.

Against the richly descried settings and circumstances, however, the individual characters pale over time. Though they are set up very well, the people of Holt eventually fade into the flatness of the Great Plains surrounding them; the world changes, but they stay essentially the same, plodding forward without appearing to go very far. This stasis contributes to Plainsong‘s sleepy, small-town atmosphere, but it also leaves something to be desired with regards to the reading experience. It is still absolutely worth the read, especially if you’re looking for a stunningly written book that will restore your faith in humanity.

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