Wearing Out the West

Plainsong is an inspired title for this spare, uninflected novel, the third in a sequence of novels by Kent Haruf set in the high plains of Holt County, Colorado, approximately one hundred fifty miles due east of Denver. It’s a “song” of the plains recounted in a very plain style. (“Plainsong: the unisorous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.”) Northeastern Colorado isn’t the West of spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas but a countryside of grim, featureless, and often arid distances. In Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), the Holt County region is described principally by what it was not, in the dismayed eyes of homesteaders pushing westward from Iowa in 1896:

…This country wasn’t like [Cedar County, Iowa]. It wasn’t any of that deep-black-topsoil country with forty inches of annual rain-fall and good drainage and plenty of hardwood close by—burr oak and black walnut—for lumber and fuel. What this country was was sandy, and it was dry, and for the most part it was just flat, with only some low sand hills running off in a northeasterly direction towards the Nebraska Panhandle. There were almost no trees.

In the words of the novel’s near-omniscient narrator, descendant of these original settlers, whose rueful, elegiac brooding makes of a mordant family drama something approaching small-scale tragedy, northeastern Colorado has a horizon that in every direction seems “to reach forever away” under a vast indifferent sky. Why establish a homestead in such a place? Why abandon the fecundity and community of the Midwest for the hardscrabble life of the frontier? Haruf’s portrait of the homesteader Roy Goodnough suggests that the ideal survivor in such circumstances wasn’t just self-sacrificing and puritanically frugal, pitiless in his exploitation of himself and his family, but obsessed to the point of madness. In a vividly described harvesting accident, the consequence of Goodnough’s frugality (he has mended his farm machinery with wire rather than buy new machines), this raging King Lear of the Colorado plains suffers an appropriate punishment:

[The horses] were used to being started by his yelling, and they couldn’t anyway distinguish his giddup from his goddamn.

And it was goddamn, he yelled. Goddamn it, to hell.

So the horses lunged forward. The six workhorses threw themselves hard into the harness, and the header moved, jolted forward…. The long bat of the reel came around, hit [Goodnough] hard, a blow across the nape of the neck. It dropped him onto his hands and knees. He braced his fall, but his fingers caught in the sharp blades of the sections. He had honed them that morning himself on the grindstone; they were knife sharp. Now his fingers were in them, between the bright blades, and his fingers were being mangled, torn to bone and bits, broken, cut, sliced. And he was yelling. All the time he was yelling, cursing, screaming, his feet kicking out wild behind him,… the horses…

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