Traveling across Spain by train is a beautiful way to see the landscape and smaller villages and towns that you may not otherwise encounter. It’s more relaxing than air travel and an altogether more pleasant experience. It is also very long and a good book is essential. A really good book. A book you can barely lift your head from. A book that creates so physically and emotionally real a world that it hardly seems possible it could be a fiction. Such a book is Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.
Plainsong is the first in a trilogy set in the fictional Midwest prairie county of Holt, Colorado. So powerful is Haruf’s rendering of Holt that I swear you will look for it on a map. You will seek it out to see if it’s possible to visit Maggie Jones, drop into the grocery store, investigate the suitability of the local school should you decide to relocate, and make sure you befriend the two farming McPheron brothers who occupy the heart of the story. As its title and epigraph suggest, Plainsong is the unadorned melody of apparently disparate voices that coalesce to form the the essence of a place. The realisation of character and place is so tangible as to create the effect of a birds eye view as if as readers we are able to hover unseen above the everyday lives of the people of Holt.
Characterisation and the interweaving of individual stories to create the whole are powerful in Plainsong but so too are the observations of the harshness of rural existence. The realities of farming and livestock management are laid bare and more than one visceral episode will challenge the reader’s strength of stomach. A horse beloved of two young boys is shot and gutted before them. The same boys struggle with their morbid fascination when they happen upon the armchair slumped corpse of a familiar woman. These first encounters with death come to them in the midst of their fragmented comprehension of the recent departure of their mother from their young lives. These are moments though in a largely optimistic tale of interdependent people, just getting on with life in a small, isolated community, a tale lifted by Haruf’s clear voiced, acutely observed prose.
I discovered Haruf very late with his final book, the short yet substantial masterpiece, Our Souls at Night. I recommend his work highly, for its craftmanship and capacity to unsentimentally and empathetically render the importance of the basic human need for connection. If you do plan to travel, to take a trip in real life, I suggest you also take a parallel one, via Holt, Colorado.