Taking place in the fictional rural setting of Holt, Colorado, this is the story of several people who have one thing in common: They are all emotionally damaged, but through their interactions with each other they achieve a level of healing. –High school history teacher Tom Guthrie is the father of two boys, Ike and Bobby who are 10 and 9 years old respectively. His wife, Ella, has retreated to the guest room where she sleeps all day and all night and eventually leaves the family entirely. –Victoria Roubideaux is 17 and pregnant by a young man she met the previous summer. She has no idea where he is now. And things get complicated very quickly when her mother kicks her out of their house. –Raymond and Harold McPheron are elderly brothers who live 17 miles out of town on a cattle ranch. Orphaned at a young age, the two have always lived together and neither ever married. –Maggie Jones is a high school teacher who has a knack for helping others just when they need it most. But will she ever find happiness of her own?
The astonishingly spare and sparse prose in which the novel is written reflects the spare and sparse landscape of Holt. It’s almost as if the writing style allows the reader to vicariously become a part of the setting. But at the same time, the writing is incredibly descriptive from an old screen door to the sight of oncoming headlights to the look of faded wallpaper. Brilliant. Monumental. A masterpiece.
This exquisite work of literature is also a compelling story with a finely rendered plot and characters that simply pop off the page they are so real and vivid. In many ways, this may be the Great American Novel—or at least in the top 10.
Just an afterthought: “Plainsong” was a finalist in 1999 for the National Book Award. Only a finalist? When I realized this, I immediately Googled to find out that year’s winner. It was “Waiting” by Ha Jin, which I have read. Here are the opening lines of my review of “Waiting”: On the one hand, this is a literary masterpiece, a political allegory, and a love story that won the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award, and was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. On the other hand, the title is quite apt. The reader will be kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t. This is a relatively short book that feels quite long.
“Plainsong” is better, in my opinion. Much, much better.
Bonus: This is the first in a three-part series, so the story doesn’t end here. Yay!