Monday, August 19, 2013

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

I've been living in cities for too long, and I've gone soft.  The plain in this novel's title refers to the flatlands in eastern Colorado, where people raise livestock and crops, not high-rise buildings and investment schemes. When I was very young, my father was a large-animal vet in a very small dairy-farming village. A different topology from Haruf's fictional town of Holt, but with the same sort of earthy, mostly very decent people.

Haruf's scenes of cattle ranchers pulling a contorted calf from a cow's prolapsed uterus using a heavy calving chain made me want to wail and scream, as did his description of a horse going down and dying from an intestinal torsion.  The details of the vet's on-the-spot autopsy were... vivid.  As I was blanching and cringing, though, I could hear my late father's snorts of derision. Life in the big city?  This is life in the big country. And it's often bloody and rough. Oddly enough, though, ranchers and farmers -- unlike urbanites -- tend to develop callouses on their hands rather than their hearts and minds.

Mr. Haruf has pulled off a mean feat with the characters in Plainsong:  They are deeply lovable without being saccharine sweet and memorable despite having no pronounced character quirks. They are ordinary people writ large and splendidly drawn.

Victoria Roubideaux is 17 and pregnant, locked out of her home by her mother, who is still bitter about her alcoholic husband's abandonment. Victoria seeks shelter with one of her schoolteachers, Maggie Jones. Maggie shares a house with her elderly, senile father and can't shelter the girl for long. In what is either a stroke of genius or a moment of lunacy, she decides to ask a pair of gruff old cattlemen -- the McPheron brothers, who never married and live together on a ranch well outside of town -- if they might be able to give shelter to the pregnant teen. Raymond and Harold McPheron politely listen to her proposition, assure her they'll consider it, and proceed through the day's chores without another word about it. As evening falls, Harold is stunned to realise that his brother is actually thinking of taking the girl in.
...why hell, look at us. Old men alone. Decrepit old bachelors out here in the country seventeen miles from the closest town which don't amount to much of a good goddamn even when you get there. Think of us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome. Independent. Set in all our ways. How you going to change now at this age of life?
I can't say, Raymond said. But I'm going to. That's what I know.
And what do you mean? How come she wouldn't be no trouble?
I never said she wouldn't be no trouble. I said maybe she wouldn't be as much trouble.
Why wouldn't she be as much trouble? As much trouble as what? You ever had a girl living with you before?
You know I ain't, Raymond said.
Well, I ain't either. But let me tell you. A girl is different. They want things. They need things on a regular schedule. Why, a girl's got purposes you and me can't even imagine. They got ideas in their heads you and me can't even suppose. And goddamn it, there's the baby too. What do you know about babies?
Nothing. I don't even know the first thing about em, Raymond said...
...You're getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That's all I'll say. Raymond, you're my brother. But you're getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I'll say one thing more.
This ain't going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.
No, it ain't, Raymond said. But I don't recall you ever attending Sunday school either. 
Another Holt family consists of Tom Guthrie, also a teacher at the high school, his sons Ike and Bobby (9 and 10 years old and inseparable), and his estranged wife, a shadowy figure whose emotional stability seems to increase in direct proportion to the distance she can put between herself and them.  When the novel opens, she has withdrawn to the darkened guest room bed and can barely manage to get out of it. She progresses to a small rented house in Holt, and then to her domineering older sister's apartment in Denver, with her husband and sons doing their best to understand and carry on.

Bobby and Ike have daily paper routes, so they set out early each morning on their bicycles to collect the papers from the train station and then pedal around the town to deliver them. On Saturday mornings, they go to the doors to collect payment for the week's papers. They approach Iva Stearns' place with dread. An overweight, cranky woman who shuffles around her cluttered apartment with the aid of two canes, always wearing the same house dress and apron, Iva peppers them with seemingly random questions. They are too young to understand that, despite her grouchy demeanour, she is truly lonely and starved for company, even that of two little boys. Ostensibly to save herself the effort of getting out of her chair to answer the door, she gives them a key to her apartment and tells them to come in whenever they'd like to. When their mother leaves town for Denver, Bobby and Ike find themselves dropping in to visit old Mrs. Stearns. She sends them to the grocer to buy a few ingredients for oatmeal cookies. As the crotchety old woman talks them through the recipe, it becomes evident that her intentions go beyond giving the boys a treat to console them on that afternoon. She's teaching them some survival skills for a life without mother.
All right, she said. You understand? If you can read you can cook. You can always feed yourselves. You remember that. I'm not just talking about here. When you go home too. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Meanwhile, the McPheron brothers report to Maggie Jones that Victoria goes straight into her room after washing the supper dishes every evening. Maggie wonders if they talk to her. They look at Maggie and each other with soup-plate eyes. Talk to her? About what?!  That evening, Harold summons his courage to initiate a conversation by asking Victoria for her opinion on buying or selling soybeans, based on the day's commodities report. To her eternal credit, Victoria asks him for more information on the subject, and both brothers eagerly set out to discuss with her the business of farming.
Now you want to sell some of it off. So you call up the elevator and tell him to sell off five thousand bushel, say. So he sells it at today's prices and then the big grain trucks, those tractors and trailers you see out on the highway, they haul it away.
Who does he sell it to? the girl said.
Any number of places. Most likely to the milling company. Mostly it goes for your baking flour. Then when do you get your money? He writes you out a check today. Who does that? The elevator manager. Except if there's a storage charge, Harold said, taking his turn again. He takes that out. Plus your drying charge, if there is one. Only, since it's wheat we're talking about, there's never much drying charge with wheat. Mostly that's with your corn.
They stopped again and studied the girl once more. They had begun to feel better, a little satisfied with themselves. They knew they were not out of the woods yet, but they had begun to allow themselves to believe that what they saw ahead was at least a faint track leading to a kind of promising clearing. They watched the girl and waited...
And so the two McPheron brothers went on to discuss slaughter cattle and choice steers, heifers and feeder calves, explaining these too, and between the three of them they discussed these matters thoroughly, late into the evening. Talking. Conversing. Venturing out into various other matters a little too. The two old men and the seventeen-year-old girl sitting at the dining room table out in the country after supper was over and after the table was cleared, while outside, beyond the house walls and the curtainless windows, a cold blue norther began to blow up one more high plains midwinter storm.


  1. Sounds like a recipe for either a disaster or a scandal.
    Beautiful prose, though. Very evocative.

  2. Replies
    1. There were a few times when I could imagine this book taking a turn for the morbidly depressing, but Haruf veered off in a more upbeat direction each time. It's not exactly a rosy novel, but it's a far cry from, say, Cormac McCarthy, who is black, blacker, blackest!


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