“You’ve got to be kidding!”
I might have said that out loud, even though I was alone and curled up for what the front cover had assured me was an amazing story: “national bestseller;” “his finest-tuned tale yet.”
My exclamation of disbelief came after reading a mere three pages. Here’s a snippet that straddled pages 2 and 3:
She went inside and returned with the cold bottle.
Thank you, he said.
She went back in. He drank from the bottle and sat looking out at the quiet empty street in the summer evening. The neighbor Berta May’s yellow house next door and the other houses beyond it, running up to the highway, and the vacant lot directly across the street and the railroad tracks three blocks in the other direction, all of that part of town still empty and undeveloped between his property and the tracks. In the trees in front of the house the leaves were blowing a little.
She brought a tray of crackers and cheese and an apple cut up in quarters and a glass of iced tea. Would you like any of this? She held out the tray to him. He took a piece of apple and she sat down beside him in the other porch chair.
I don’t know why I kept reading. Curiosity, I guess. How could this possibly have become a best seller? Plus I was already snuggled up with my blanket in front of the fire and it was obvious I wasn’t going to have to work too hard to read this book. So I kept going.
And I’m glad I did.
It was a story of an old man dying — very simply told. Simple dialogue. Simple sentences, the vast majority of them made up nothing more than a subject and a predicate, not a qualifying clause in sight: “He turned.” “She handed him the plate.” “He lay on the bed.” “She watched from the doorway.”
There weren’t even any quotation marks to indicate conversations. It was like they were whispered. Or suggested. I couldn’t even hear their voices in my head. It was all so quietly told.
But there was a beauty to it. A grace.
A simple grace.
Like a benediction.
(As you no doubt noticed, this book was borrowed from the library in Rocky Mountain House. Have I ever mentioned how much I love my library? My life is so much richer because of the all the wonderful books and music and, yes, even movies that I can access with my membership.)
In the course of the story, we are introduced to some of the people whose lives have intersected during the life of this dying man. There is mention made of two crusty old bachelors who had taken in a pregnant 17 year old girl. That piqued my interest so I went looking for Kent Haruf’s previous books, hoping I would find more about this unlikely pairing.
And I struck gold.
Simple gold, but gold nonetheless.
Another national bestseller. Go figure.
In addition to other simply drawn, yet memorable characters, I got to spend time with Harold and Raymond McPheron, two brothers who kept moving steadily forward, doing what needed to be done on their cattle ranch when, as teenage boys, they found themselves parentless. In their old age, they take in Victoria, a pregnant teenager, something totally foreign to the simple, land-based rhythm of their bachelor lives. Their act of kindness is a life-saver for the young girl and her mere presence in the little room they fixed for her off the kitchen profoundly changes their lives.
I was especially touched by their attempts to forge a connection with her. They could sense that things were not going well and, when they approached the woman who brought the unlikely trio together, she gently chastised them for not talking to the girl enough. This felt like a rigorous requirement for two old men accustomed to silence, but they rose to the challenge and their awkward attempts at drawing Victoria out — by sharing with her the ins and outs of cattle marketing — were just as awkwardly received, but so movingly, tenderly, simply done that I fell in love with them at their kitchen table.
I no sooner closed the book on Plainsong, then I was picking up the next book.
I knew, from the back cover, that Victoria was going to take her baby and leave Raymond and Harold to go off to school. I knew it would be hard for all of them, but it needed to be done and they were nothing if not practical folk and they would work through it. Yes, it would be hard, but it would work out.
It would be a beautiful rendering of a simple story and all would be well.
I was totally unprepared for what life brought my new family.
I had to stop reading for awhile to take it in. How could this happen? How could they possibly move forward after this devastating loss?
And then, finally, after I had absorbed enough of the initial shock to continue reading, I rejoined these characters — my people — as they forged ahead
with simple, quotation mark-free dialogue,
simple subject-predicate sentences,
and simple, soul-baring honesty.
And I fell even more deeply and irrevocably in love with Raymond.
How was it possible to feel such tenderness for a man who exists nowhere but in the pages of a book?
Ah, the power of simplicity.