Tuesday, August 03, 2004
Plains and Prairies
Victoria. He cleared his throat. He started again. Victoria. Raymond and me was wanting to ask you a question, if you don't mind. If we could. Before you started back to your studies there.
Yes? she asked. What did you want to ask?
We just wondered...what you thought of the market?
The girl looked at him. What? she said.
On the radio, he said. The man said today how soybeans was down a point. But that live cattle was holding steady.
And we wondered, Raymond said, what you thought of it. Buy or sell, would you say.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruff, takes place in Eastern Colorado in the bare stretches of Holt County. As a kid growing up in California, I always considered Colorado part of the West. Now that I live in Illinois, it occurs to me that the flat, eastern part of the state has as much in common with the Heartland as it does with the downhill skiing resorts in the mountainous side of the state.

It's the two McPheron brothers that are my favorites in this story. There's something familiar about their silent ways. In fact, I'd say the portrait of the McPheron brothers could be a close description of some of my Midwestern in-laws. The bachelor brothers, both in their sixties, still live in the old farmhouse they were raised in. Their days are made up of herding cattle, raising calves, tending horses, stringing barbwire, and listening to the daily farm report on the radio, until a local school teacher convinces them to take in a pregnant teenager.

All the sudden, there is a young woman living in the house, and they're afraid to say a word to her. Victoria lives with the brothers for weeks before they crack open the door of conversation with talk about pork bellies and soy futures. During the weeks leading up to the delivery, they misunderstand her moodiness, her tendency to sleep in until noon on weekends, the way she brushes her hair for hours. Just when they start to get used to having a woman around the place, she disappears...

I picked up this book at a used book sale because I liked the title. Inside the cover, I see that the word plainsong means "the unison vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times." It seems an apt metaphor for this gentle story. Plainsong is filled with characters that are unbending and resilient, just like the prairie landscape where they live. Ken Haruff has written other books about the good people of Holt County, and I'd like to read them all.


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