16 July 2012


"The smudge pot they stood upright on the ground near the chute and Harold bent over stiffly and held a match to it. When it ignited he adjusted the flue so it gave off the heat, and its smoke rose black and smelling of kerosene into the wintry air, mixing with the cattle dust."

Kent Haruf's Plainsong is so beautiful. I love everything about how it is written: the prose is so simple, so unadorned, that I couldn't help but be taken in, even though I'd already read it previously, the first time about four or five years ago, and never remembered a thing about it, except for the part of the story about a pregnant teenage girl (Victoria Roubideaux). When I went to get my NBI clearance (a criminal record certificate) at Robinsons Otis and had to line up at six in the morning to secure my place in the queue (one has to sit on the floor, too!), my nose was in the book for three or four straight hours, making the wait very bearable.

One of the nicest things about Plainsong is that it's set in a small Colorado community, somewhere in the high plains called Holt, which means that the language used by Mr. Haruf is the language of this community's people. In 2009, Laura Miller wrote in Salon that American literature favors books about "men in boats" (over "women in houses")—Melville, anyone? Well, to me, books about men and women in a small town are just as charming, and the language just as lovely.

Take the passage above. It doesn't matter that I don't at all know a thing about what one does with cattle: as long as the farmers—here named Harold and Raymond McPheron, the old, unmarried brothers—know what they're doing with their cattle, I'm happy to read descriptions of them going about doing it. Thanks to Mr. Haruf, these happen to be rich, beautiful descriptions, too.

I'm also happy to be let in on a number of Americanisms—the kind that never annoys—which pepper the cuttings of talk in Plainsong. Here's an example: "Well, he might of went to Denver, Raymond said. Then he might of went back to the Rosebud in South Dakota. I doubt anybody knows. He's been gone a long time." "Might of went," of course, should be "might have gone," but who cares? Not me. When I read it, I heard it, too. It sounded like country music without the notes.

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