Book Review: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong takes place in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, and mostly chronicles the lives of some of the residents in a very direct but poignant way. It’s the kind of book that I mostly liked, but I have a hard time understanding why. Let’s see how I do explaining it.

There are three or four main story lines. In one, 17-year-old Victoria is pregnant and her mother kicked her out of the house. Elderly, lifelong bachelors, Harold and Raymond Mcpheron, take her in. In another story line, young brothers Ike and Bobby Guthrie are quietly struggling when their mother abandons them while their father, Tom, tries to move on with his life.

I particularly liked the story line about Victoria and the McPheron brothers. The brothers had been isolated on their cattle ranch since high school, mostly keeping company with each other. Although socially awkward, they’re kind and decent and just what Victoria needs. It turns out they need her, too. They are absolutely mystified by the teenager and constantly fretting that they’re doing something wrong. It’s really sweet and funny. Ultimately, they figure out how to make a little family and the brothers aren’t so lonely anymore and neither is Victoria.

I also enjoyed reading about Ike and Bobby. They are good, serious kids trying their best to adjust to the collapse of their family. The author often describes them as having the same expressions, reactions and mannerisms, almost as if they are a single unit. I found myself wondering if they would eventually turn out like the McPheron brothers, sticking with each other out of comfort and trust.

Now that I’ve written this, it seems that what I liked about the book were the characters and the decency they showed to each other. There wasn’t an intricate plot – just people living their lives in a small town with pretty typical highs and lows of every day life. And the stories were told in a direct, unflowery way that I liked. Some might find it too dry, but not me.

It wasn’t all good, though. There were a couple of scenes that were rather jarring. In one of them, one of the Guthrie’s horses died and the field autopsy was written about in grizzly detail. In another, some high school students were having sex, also told in detail. Ike and Bobby witnessed both. Maybe the author meant these as “coming of age scenes?” Not sure, but they tripped me up!

So I’ll give Plainsong a cautionary thumbs up. It’s probably not for everyone but I liked it. (And, really, I could say that about every book I like, right?)

Warning: gross barnyard animal details, several sex scenes, and author has an apparent aversion to quotation marks.

Have you read Plainsong or anything else by Kent Haruf? Share your opinion and set me straight!

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

  1. I haven’t read anything by Kent Haruf but your review has me intrigued! I think it’s a real skill to create characters who are different but appealing in small ways, and it sounds like that’s what Haruf does in this book. Loved the review! Also find the cover intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting that you posted on this book today. I have been reviewing my plans for 2020 and on my list of authors to read (for a few years now) has been Haruf. Molly read a few of his books years ago and also liked them so I’m optimistic that 2020 will find me finally getting to a couple of his books!

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  3. I read Plainsong several years ago and remember liking it a lot – for just the reason you settled on – the characters. Their fictional development is slow, but feels very authentic, and my affection for them grew over the course of the book. I appreciate books that don’t depend on crazy plot twists or too much action – just regular folks trying to do the best they can. Here’s to a great new year of wonderful books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Martha! I’m glad you had a similar takeaway. I agree – sometimes it’s nice not to have crazy plot twists so you can just relax and appreciate the story instead of trying to guess what’s coming up. Happy new year!


  4. I read Plainsong several years ago and liked it. The relationship between the brothers and Victoria is what drew me in. It drives home a much broader definition of family which I really liked. Also, the fact that it is set on the plains of Colorado, an area we drive through often on our way from Kansas to Denver to visit my parents had particular interest to me. I tried Eventide after Plainsong, but didn’t like it as well….but that might just be me!

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  5. I’m reading the trilogy at the moment and had quite high expectations as I’ve heard so much about this book, so I was wondering what it was that has so enamoured people. It really wasn’t until midway through Eventide, the second book that I felt I’d become hooked and really cared about the characters, rather than merely observing them in Plainsong. It is about the characters for me too, their understated way of being with each other, the little that has to be said, but the importance that something must be said (as in the McPherson brothers learning to express themselves more), everyone has their underlying wounds, but rather than talk about them, Haruf brings us examples of how people move on from that and in small ways heal and find their faith in humanity again. And suffer again too.

    In some ways I loved Eventide even more, maybe because I’m reading it in a time of isolation and so when they make some recovery or gain from a connection I feel it more deeply, it’s also incredibly sad, but then so if life. I’m reading Benediction now, hoping it’ll be as good. Thank you for your thoughtful review, it’s nice to see someone else reading it in years later as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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