Plainsong

Tucked into Kent Haruf’s novel, Plainsong, is a small and powerful plot. Haruf’s writing is lovely throughout this small story, but a lot of what he writes could be described as “what it is like to live in Holt County, Colorado.” [1] Those parts of the book didn’t really engage me.

Then in the 2nd chapter, [2] Victoria Roubideaux, a high school girl is discovered by her Haruf 4mother to be pregnant. At that point, although I didn’t know it then, the narrative that came to matter a great deal to me began. A few chapters later, locked out by an angry mother, Victoria winds up at Maggie Jones’s house and gets Maggie out of bed. She knows Maggie because Mrs. Jones is a teacher and Victoria seems to sense that she would be willing to listen to Victoria’s tale, even if she has to get out of bed to do it.

Maggie: Victoria? Is that you?

Victoria: Mrs. Jones. Could I talk to you?

Maggie: Well honey, yes. What’s wrong?

Just like that.

Maggie buys a kit and makes sure that Victoria actually is pregnant and then sets up an appointment with Dr. Martin, so options can be discussed. When allowing Victoria to stay at her house is no longer possible, she drives out to see the McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond.

Her case that Harold and Raymond ought to let Victoria live with them has two parts. If you were diagramming it as a battle, you would say it had two fronts. Here they are.

“…that girl needs somebody and I’m ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you—she smiled at them—you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red ow to care about and worry over. It’s too lonesome out here.”

Haruf 3So the bothers say Yes and Maggie brings Victoria out to live with them. Harold is showing Victoria around the house, having no idea how to do it. [3] His “best manners” are an embarrassment. “Damn it, Maggie, I’m just trying to be proper. I’m just trying to get us started off on the right chalk. I don’t want to scare her off already.” Maggie patted his smooth-shaven cheek. “You’re doing just fine,” she said. “Keep going.”

Haruf doesn’t tell us how Maggie came to be the person Victoria could just crash in on, or how she came to be the person who shows up at the McPheron’s farm with a preposterous proposal which she justifies, in part by what she says they need. The reader has to take it for granted that in Holt, Colorado,  it is plausible that Maggie would know what Harold and Raymond might need. But Maggie’s encouragement and her patting Harold’s cheek astounded me. Who is this woman? [4]

So Victoria comes to live with the McPheron brothers, but the social distance between the old brothers and the young girl is too great and Maggie has to make further demands on Harold and Russell.

“I was hoping I’d run into you,” she says to Harold when they meet at the grocery store. “What for,” says Harold, “What’d I do now?” Maggie’s response is, “Not enough. Neither one of you has.” Then:

You’re not talking to her. You and Raymond don’t talk like you should to that girl. Women want to hear some conversation in the evening. We don’t think that’ too much to ask. We’re willing to put up with a lot from you men, but in the evening we want to hear some talking. We want to have a little conversation in the house.” [5]

Haruf 1Finally, it is time for Victoria to have her baby. This is a girl who was impregnated by a self-important predator in the back seat of a car. She was thrown out of her house by an angry mother. She was kidnapped by the boy who got her pregnant and barely escaped from him. Victoria Roubideaux has been in some very difficult places.

But listen to this. This is where she has gotten to; this is the emotional climax, for me, of the Victoria story. She is just getting ready to go to the hospital to deliver the baby.

Earlier, she had thought that she would call Maggie on the day the pains started, but she had decided against it now….She had a feeling about wanting this to happen just for herself. And just for them too, the old brothers, without others being involved. She thought they had earned that.

This thing that has happened to her through the callousness and disregard of others is now something she “wants to happen just for herself.” That marks a lot of the journey traveled. And not only that, she wants it to happen “just for them too, the old brothers.” Now the “just” is out of place, I will grant. She can’t have the baby “just” for herself and also “just” for the brothers, but I think that language catches something of her emotional expressiveness and of her generosity as well. And I think that particularly because of the last phrase, “they had earned that.”

This girl who has not been given what she deserved by quite a few people is now making a judgment about what she owes these brothers; about what consideration they have “earned” from her with their steadfast kindness. Even to Maggie Jones, who made it all possible, she does not owe what she owes to them, to “the old brothers.”

Victoria Roubidoux has traveled a long and difficult road and she has arrived at a good place.

[1] The materials about “Holt” identify it as Holt County. The book itself treats it as a town, e.g. “seventeen mils southeast of Holt” is where the McPheron brothers live.
[2] The “fourth chapter” because the chapters don’t have numbers. Each chapter is named by the person (s) who are considered in that chapter. Thus, there are 12 chapters called “Victoria Roubideaux,” 9 called “McPherons,” and only one named “Maggie Jones,” who is, arguably, the central narrative mechanism of the story.
[3] Russell decides he is going to accept Victoria’s need to live there whether Harold wants to or not. It seems an oddly abrupt decision for brothers who have been on their own, without parents, since they were very young. Harold’s reproof of Raymond’s impulsiveness seems to me as charming as anything in the book. “Raymond,” says Harold, “You’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide.”
[4] She also reaches down, as she and Guthrie are beginning the only lovemaking scene in the book, and takes hold of Guthrie’s penis. “You do make a person feel interested,” said Guthrie.
[5] In this one conversation, Maggie goes from “having a girl in your house” to “women want to hear some conversation” to “We—women like Victoria and me—don’t think it is too much to ask.” Harold is too slow to follow to series, but the reader is not. And we know that although Maggie aligns herself with Victoria as “we women,” she herself does not have “a little conversation in the house.” She lives with her demented father, which is to say, from a conversational standpoint, she lives alone.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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