Blasts from the Past: Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)

Cover image Back from sunny Split – more of which later in the week – with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you’re probably aware that I have a weakness for stripped down prose – each word carefully chosen, not one wasted. Kent Haruf’s novels are such shining examples of this style that his name appears on my About page for those who might be wondering whether the blog is worth their time. I’ve been delighted to introduce several readers to his work over the years and I hope that this post might tempt a few more. As with all his novels, Plainsong is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It’s not the first in the Holt series – there’s no need to read them in order – but I’ve chosen it because it’s first Haruf novel I read.

The aptly named Plainsong is about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to Victoria. These are ordinary people living in a small American town coping with whatever life lobs at them but Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life.

Haruf wrote only a handful of novels – his first, The Tie That Binds, was published in 1984 and his sixth, Our Souls at Night, came out in 2015, the year after he died. All of them exemplify a humanity and empathy that few writers attain; all of them are expressed in elegant, beautifully  pared-back prose. I’ve yet to meet a reader who’s visited Holt and not fallen in love with it. If you haven’t read him yet, please do.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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23 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)”

  1. I have still never read anything by Kent Haruf, though I believe I have copies of this one and Benediction in a box in America. I may have to dig them out on my trip back there later in the month!

      1. Thinking of blasts from the past…I recently finished A Student of Weather, Elizabeth Hay’s first novel. I know you’ve championed her here before. I loved her writing and mostly loved the plot too, though it somewhat veers off what seems like the main theme. I’d like to read her other books too. That one was a charity shop find for 20p!

        1. Susan Osborne

          So pleased you enjoyed that, Rebecca. I’d recommend Late Nights on Air, my favourite of her novels.

  2. I don’t know this writer at all but I think perhaps I would like him.

    So many blasts from the past I can’t think of just one. Yesterday I got a comment on a 10 year old blog post ( I was on LiveJournal then and transported everything over 5 years ago). That was Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Couldn’t believe how long it was since I had read that book.

    1. Susan Osborne

      I didn’t realise you were such a blogging veteran, Ali! I’ve never read any Laski but I’ve heard very good reports – would Little Boy Lost be a good place to start?

  3. I only ‘met’ Haruf last year when I read Our Souls. It was love-at-first-read and then a little despair about the fact that there wasn’t a huge back-collection I could get stuck into. As a result, I haven’t rushed to read all that he’s written – instead, I’ll eek them out slowly.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Very wise, Kate. He’s one of those authors who, I imagine, spent a great deal of time choosing each word and revising many drafts.

    1. Susan Osborne

      That’s lovely to hear, Valorie. Thank you. I’m sure you’ll have a great discussion, so much to talk about both in terms of style and themes.

  4. I loved Our Souls at Night, so I do plan to read this one sometime. It sits on my shelf, waiting patiently (with many others!). It’s a good think books are patient.

  5. I agree — I’ve read 3 of Haruf’s novels, most recently the lovely Eventide. Incidentally I’ve just started a more systematic re-reading blog, taking a book a year from my last 40 years of reading. Which means I’m looking forward to re-assessing some of my past enthusiasms, such as Christina Stead, Patrick O’Brian, Raymond Carver … (see

  6. inthemistandrain

    I would echo all that you say about Kent Haruf’s work., how sad that there’ll be no more. Going off now to look at Elizabeth Hay, I’ve never heard of her but she sounds promising.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Sad, indeed. I do hope you like Elizabeth Hay’s writing – Late Nights on Air remains my favourite, beautifully written with a lovely wistful tone about it.

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