After reading and enjoying Haruf’s newest book, Benediction, I thought I should go back and read the book that got Haruf nominated the National Book Award. Plainsong takes place in the same fictional Plains town, Holt, Colorado. Much like Benediction, Plainsong follows the stories of several different townspeople and examines their ordinary lives in simple, yet beautiful language. The main focus of this story is a teenage girl who gets pregnant and kicked out of her mother’s house and the two elderly rancher brothers who take her in. At the same time, a high school teacher is trying to care for his two young boys after their mother abandons them. There are a lot of contrasts in the book: life and death, becoming a parent and abandoning parenthood, cruelty and kindness.
Again, I loved Haruf’s language and writing style. It impresses me how he can create such vivid scenes with such sparse language. There is a scene where the pregnant girl is at a doctor’s visit and it was such an ordinary, common moment, but it still was memorable and vivid. Unfortunately, I was just not as into the plot or characters of this book (though the elderly McPheron brothers were hilarious and wonderful). I am not sure if it was just me– I wasn’t entirely in the mood for this sort of book when I read it– or if this book just wasn’t as strong as Benediction.
Recently, Jamie wrote a great post about being a mood reader. And, like it or not, I am a mood reader. I sort of wish I hadn’t tried to force this book when I wasn’t ready for it, but I guess it happens. Next time I am in the mood for great language and ordinary life, I will be picking up Eventide (the other book of Haruf’s set in this same town). Until then, however, I have (re)learned the hard lesson that I can’t force a book when I am not in the mood for it.
I was complaining to my husband the other night about perhaps being a bit over-read. I felt like I’d reached a point where I would pick up a book and know the ending before I’d even begun and where good books just aren’t cutting it any more. I wanted something weird and out of the ordinary. Well, I apparently don’t really know what I want.
Benediction is set in fictional Holt, Colorado, a small town out in the eastern plains part of the state. Dad Lewis, the owner of the local hardware store, has just learned that his cancer is terminal. His wife and daughter take care of him in his dying days, while facing the glaring absence of an estranged son/brother. A young girl moves in with her grandmother next door to the Lewises. A new preacher comes to town, but quickly comes to odds with some of his parishioners when he tries to challenge their beliefs a little too much. And a widowed mother and her retired daughter flit in and out of their neighbors’ stories, while dealing with disappointments of their own.
While Benediction is out of the ordinary for my usual reading, it is all about the ordinary, what one character refers to as the “precious ordinary.” The “precious ordinary” is people dying, people loving, people having regrets, people helping one another, people hurting one another and, well, that is pretty much all that happens in this story. The characters are ordinary people with fairly ordinary lives. What is really remarkable here is Haruf’s writing. The language is plain and unadorned, like the characters and place they describe. Haruf doesn’t use quotation marks to set off the dialogue, which should be annoying, but actually furthers the feeling of plainness and I ended up preferring the feel of the lack of quotation marks. Something about the plainness of the characters, plot, setting, and writing ends up being quite beautiful. These characters’ lives aren’t perfect by any means, but there is something satisfying about reading such a well-rendered story about ordinary people doing ordinary things.
If you are in the mood for a story that has very little flash or pretense, but celebrates ordinary life in sparse language, give Benediction a try. I am definitely going to look for Haruf’s other novels, as his writing style really struck a chord with me. Let this be a testament to the fact that sometimes a simple story is exactly what you need, when there is the writing to back it up.