Late last year, the son of a Methodist preacher from the American West died, and the world is worse off for it. Kent Haruf, the author of six novels, died of lung disease in his Colorado home. Haruf is best known and perhaps most fondly remembered for three novels he wrote about the fictional mountain town of Holt, Colorado.
The first book of the trilogy, “Plainsong” (1999), has already staked its claim to lofty accolade of “modern classic” in literary circles. The story, which bares the subtitle “Vintage Contemporaries,” uses sharp and direct language to introduce the town’s inhabitance to readers. Description is done through short declarative sentences and shrewd word choice, rather than the attempts at flowery language that usually accompany books that romanticize small town life. The book’s title is an allusion to a classification of music, Christian liturgy, where only the essential aspects of the song remain. The author does not deviate from this pattern in his language throughout the novel.
If your enjoyment of a novel is more contingent on a twisting and exciting plot than the fanfare, “Plainsong” will be lost on you. “Plainsong” is not so much a story as it is a character sketch of five residents of Holt. In alternating chapters, the book follows two young boys, a pregnant teenager, two bachelor farmers and a lonely high school teacher as they navigate the trails of life in the modern American West. “Plainsong” ascends to its lofty preach in my esteem because of its deep and rich characters, which reflect the complexity of real human beings.
In the case of two of the books in the trilogy, several heroes that the McPheron brothers raise even above the reality that have become some of my favorite people, fictional or otherwise.
Ultimately, the simple story is about community. As the characters move through their lives and face the economic and social hardships, they all find a similar solution. While the novel does not feature characters conquering their hardships in a dramatic fashion, they instead face the aftermath by constructing around them a community. By placing their identities in the framework of community — whether familial in the case of Tom Guthrie and his two sons Ike and Bobby, or otherwise in the case of Victoria Rubidoux and the McPheron brothers — the characters are able to reach self-actualization and solace without any great victory. The stories told are not specific to the book’s setting, and the deep and rich characters that Haruf constructed should act as models as we attempt to navigate our own hardships in an increasingly isolated world.