There are those who bemoan Colorado's landlocked condition and regard the Rockies as some kind of consolation prize for our lack of a Hamptons or a Jersey shore. But there are also those much more enlightened folks who realize that east of Denver, the high plains roll out with endless promise, as eternal as the ocean, as mysterious as the deep blue sea.
And it is on an island in this ocean of dirt and grass and hope that Kent Haruf places Plainsong, the hypnotic novel he released last year to rave reviews -- William Kittridge praised it as an American "masterpiece" -- and, ultimately, a nomination as a National Book Award finalist.
Plainsongis the story of Holt, Colorado, a fictitious town that could be so many small towns on the plains. Among its residents are high school teacher Tom Guthrie, who knows his way around pregnant cows but loses his wife to Denver; Guthrie's two young sons, who deliver the town's paper (the Denver News) and in many ways hold Holt together; and Guthrie's colleagues and students at the school, including pregnant teenager Victoria Roubideaux. She's trying to build a life for the life growing inside her, and ultimately finds it living with two elderly bachelor brothers who run a cattle ranch just outside of town.
The book, now out in paperback, is lovely, mesmerizing and completely lacking in quotation marks -- but really, on the plains, experience provides its own punctuation. "It is not pretty," Haruf says of that part of the world, "but it is beautiful. You have to know how to look at it. It forces you to slow way down and look, really look."
And Haruf, who teaches in Illinois but returns to Colorado every summer, had to look inward to put that world on paper: As the story goes, he wrote the first draft of Plainsong with a stocking cap over his eyes to help him visualize the plains town where he had grown up. He was probably humming all the while, the sort of simple American hymns that, like his book, carry the name "plainsong." The novel is an unadorned melody that moves to the rhythm of small-town life, of high school football games, cozy cafes and the calving season, then soars to create a harmony all our own.