Friday, April 28, 2017
Book Review--Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf, sad to say, is gone. He doesn't need my praise, and neither do his books, Plainsong especially, a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published in 1999. I read it then, and loved it. Read it again last week and loved it again, this time I think, even more.
I know readers who crack the same novels over and over again, many of them kids, of course, but adults too. Millions Netlifix their favorite movies as if those movies were a high; once upon a time an old friend of mine could recite every last line of The Wizard of Oz. I don't believe I'll start traipsing back to my favorite novels anytime soon, but reading Plainsong again, umpteen years after the fact was pure joy, not because I was surprised by the goings on--I was the first time around--but because the givens of the story are so darn good.
Don't be mistaken--there's enough sin to go around in Holt, Colorado: bad kids and good kids who do bad things. There are lousy fathers and mothers who don't have a clue they are; there's sex that probably shouldn't have gone on; and there's abject abandonment that leaves people's souls in tatters. People do bad things in Holt, and there's even bad people, men (mostly) who don't come around when they should and do when they shouldn't. "Is this heaven?--no, it's Iowa." Maybe so, but Holt isn't heaven.
But the place has its glories, even its angels. People, most all of them troubled, do good things in Holt, Colorado. They take on others' burdens. They give themselves away in a fashion that feels almost miraculous in modern life. They confront sadness, grief, and rejection. They help. They give food to the hungry. That doesn't make them sinless, but they can and do bestow grace that steps forth boldly in and from the darkness.
No one who's read the novel will ever forget the McPherons, a pair of bachelor farmers about a month or so away from the eccentricity that accrues in people who simply don't get out anymore. Just exactly how it is that Maggie Jones, a divorced teacher, even thinks of bringing a little pregnant high school girl out to stay with them is beyond me, but she does--and it's believable, and those old farts take to their needy border as if she were the child they never had. She needs them, but, Lord a'mighty, they need her--and that's what Maggie knows.
Not everyone, but some in Holt operate in the trust that is there but almost always goes unspoken. Once upon a time a student of mine, in class, told me and the whole bunch in the classroom that when his father told him to get out to the barn and milk the cows because it was time, what he really meant was "I love you." Holt has just enough of those kinds of people.
In one of the most beautiful scenes in Plainsong, a pair of kids with a mother suffering from depression begin to understand that she's not going to come home and that their parents' marriage is over. Dad's not around. He has his own business, his own pain. Besides, in Holt the only parents who talk much to their kids too often say the wrong things. These two little boys wander, really, to the upstairs apartment of an old woman who's on their paper route. Maybe they go there because they don't know where else to get the love they need. I'm not even sure they know why they visit the old lady, but they do.
Together, they bake cookies. The old woman, who has no apparent family anywhere near, gets visited by two boys she comes to understand need her. Even though nothing is said about their mutual loneliness--they don't talk through their problems, not at all--when the boys leave an hour or more later, everyone knows that what's hasn't been said, has. They've all been blessed, and so has the reader.
My mother used to get a colorful magazine on expensive paper, something called Ideals. I have no idea if it still exists, but I remember it because it seemed imported, something from far away. I suppose the danger of Kent Haruf's Plainsong is that it too comes on thick and shiny paper, that it somehow deludes us into thinking that human beings are, as if by nature, warm-hearted and warm-souled. It's easy for me to be so hoodwinked.
I hope I'm not, however, because my second trip to Holt was just as much a blessing as the first, maybe more. To people who live out here in rural America especially, Holt is forever just up the road. Stop by sometime, even if you've been there before. I swear a good visit over there will make you smile.