“The crib scene kills me,” Mark Athitakis said on Twitter when I remarked that I was half-way through Plainsong and loving it. At that time I hadn’t reached the crib scene yet, but when I did, I knew what he meant. It epitomizes the novel’s perfect balance of sweet and strong, tough (even, sometimes, brutal) and tender. It’s faintly comical, but also deeply touching.
The title and epigraph of Plainsong direct us to music: “plainsong,” we’re told, is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times” and also “any simple and unadorned melody.” I looked up “unisonous” myself to be sure I was making the right sense of that definition: it means “identical in pitch.” The implicit contrast, then, I suppose, is with harmony and counterpoint — with musical arrangements built on difference and complexity, rather than similarity and simplicity.
I find that interesting, because Plainsong itself seemed to me built on very different notes, one for each story: the little brothers, so close together in their apartness from their mother; their father the teacher, shaping life and meaning as best he can on the farm, in the school, or in the privacy of his own loneliness; the young girl, crossing too soon into the risks and responsibilities of motherhood; the old brothers, my favorites, staunch and generous in their clumsy humanity. Haruf’s genius is the blunt delicacy with which he brings out each of these elements, so seemingly singular, then creates something resonant out of their combination.
Maybe that’s what the title means: that the novel finds the commonality in these differences, showing them to belong together — to one chord, if I can keep up the musical metaphor a bit longer. Or maybe it alludes less to the stories and more to the novel’s style, which is certainly “simple and unadorned,” though eloquent in its austere precision:
Afterward, when she was calm again, after the doctor had left, she went into the air outside the Holt County Clinic next to the hospital, and the light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun.
Here and throughout, Haruf’s imagery is wonderfully concrete. He’s especially good with the landscape, which is rarely hospitable but somehow feels bracingly supportive of these lives eking themselves against its wintry contours:
They set out in the cold bright day . . . driving north toward Holt, passing through town and under the new water tower and carrying on north, the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke.
Nature is not romanticized in this world: the McPheron brothers, for instance, are cattle farmers, and there’s too much birth, blood, and slaughter in their daily routine to make them sentimental. Haruf connects his characters to nature’s harsh realities, emphasizing their common cycles of life and hunger and survival. “I started thinking about it the other day,” Harold McPheron says to his brother Raymond, as they fret over Victoria’s pregnancy: “the similarities amongst em.” “I don’t appreciate you saying she’s a heifer,” says Raymond, horrified, but later, after they deliver a calf, with difficulty, from a heifer in distress, they both move seamlessly into discussing, not the heifer’s health, but Victoria’s:
You think she’s going to be all right? Raymond said.
She’s young. She’s strong and healthy. But you don’t ever know what might could happen. You can’t tell.
There’s great compassion for animals in the novel, but their care requires a pragmatic brutality that doesn’t transfer exactly to people. The crib scene shows the McPheron brothers, hardly used to human conversation, let alone more elaborate forms of interaction, first finding then expressing the grace that lifts Haruf’s simple stories into something approaching sublimity. It’s a perfectly mundane activity, of course, shopping for a crib, but it’s joyous to see these rough men discover Victoria’s needs — not for the crib, or not just, but for belonging — and act on their insight. Through their act of practical grace, they show her she is not alone, and that ultimately gives her the courage to take up the place they have offered her in their lives.
Maybe that’s really the unisonous aspect of Plainsong: each story in its own way follows this same path, from disconnection and loss to unity. I appreciated that Haruf does not make the process seem easy, or ignore how painful even love can be. He leaves us, though, with an uplifting image of community — again, something simple, just a dinner, but everyone has taken a pilgrimage of sorts to get there. “Honey,” Maggie Jones said earlier to Victoria as the girl imagines being, going, somewhere else. “Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” Early on, for every character, to stay where they are seems like a struggle. By the end, together, through unadorned acts of kindness and principle, they have all made “this” a good place to be.