Plainsong is a term that defines music created in worship, by unaccompanied voices, sung in unison and in a free rhythm. Kent Haruf's novel of the same name, Plainsong, presents a chorus of life on the high plains of rural Holt, Colorado. The voices of the chant are sung by varied members of this small town community, all of whom are navigating life, love, abandonment, betrayal, isolation and triumph. As if flowing across a giant loom, their experiences weave together in this unisonous psalm, intoning the resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to overcome loss and discover life anew.
One voice rises above all others. A voice of reason and inspiration, of strength and gentle humanity. Though the character-titled chapters of Plainsong specifically focus on Tom Guthrie (educator and father of two young boys), Ike and Bobby (Guthrie's sons), Victoria Roubideaux (17 year-old pregnant student), Ella (Ike and Bobby's mother) and Harold and Raymond McPheron (aged brothers and farmers), it is the timbre and tone of Maggie Jones that invites us to sing along. Is Maggie Jones the unsung hero of Plainsong?
Maggie has only one devoted chapter of her own, yet she permeates the lives of those around her. Always there to lend a helping hand, even when she could use one herself. Consider first Victoria Roubideaux, pregnant at age 17, abandoned by her father, ousted from home by her mother, and left alone by the boyfriend whose child she carries. After being locked out of the house, and left “in a kind of daze of sorrow and disbelief” (Haruf 32), where did Victoria seek sanctuary and comfort? “Unconscious of any thoughts at all” (Haruf 33), Victoria finds herself at Maggie's door. Maggie provides shelter to Victoria without a second thought, despite already caring for her elderly and demented father. She helps Victoria confirm her pregnancy, visit the doctor and begin planning for her future. She never coddles Victoria, but paints a real picture of her situation and the trials ahead. After Victoria's disastrous disappearance to Denver with estranged boyfriend Dwayne, Maggie is the first phone call she makes, in efforts to come home.
Does Maggie give up on Victoria when it becomes clear she can no longer stay in Maggie's house, after her father becomes violent? No. Consider next, the McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, aged farmers living a life of isolation on their ranch. Maggie reaches out to the brothers to enroll them in Victoria's care. “I want something improbable” (Haruf 109) Maggie states simply. Though she couches it as a favor to Victoria, Maggie clearly identifies the McPherons' need for their isolation and sorrow to be eased. “...You old solitary bastards need somebody too...it's too lonesome out here” (Haruf 112). She continues to inspire them in their efforts, coaching and encouraging them on how to talk to her, how to open up, and how to be good providers. When Victoria goes missing, Maggie is whom they go to for help and advice.
Maggie seems to have an endless supply of compassion and patience. Doesn't she ever lose her cool? Well, yes...once. “Don't do this damn you, you're too old to play dumb” (Haruf 190), Maggie states to Tom Guthrie after his indiscretion with Judy, the school secretary. Consider lastly, Tom Guthrie, educator and father to Ike and Bobby, who has been abandoned by his wife. He too finds unique solace and comfort in her company. At a time of life when Guthrie is struggling to raise his boys alone, and accept his failed marriage, Maggie, “the most generous woman he'd ever known” (Haurf 233), is that glimpse of a silver lining amidst the dark and cloudy trials Tom faces. She is straightforward and honest in her interest toward Tom, “I've been watching you for a long time” (Haruf 230), “I'm just crazy about you” (Haruf 233). Guthrie seems to find his muse in Maggie, revealing himself to her in one simple phrase: “You take the breath out of me” (Haruf 232).
In his essay entitled “Kent Haruf,” Michael R. Molino states, “the novels of Kent Haruf do not tell the story of heroic idealism on the American plains” (8). Heroic idealism, no. Heroic deeds, most certainly. Maggie Jones is the intrepid voice in this ensembles' refrain, indeed the unsung hero of Plainsong. Though Haruf does not tell her story directly, Maggie is revealed as a cornerstone of her community, always ready with a kind gesture, thoughtful expression and practical solution. In these “craziest times ever” (Haruf 124), Maggie's empathy and pragmatism is pitch-perfect. Her selflessness and honesty touch the lives of all those with the good fortune of knowing her.
As Plainsong's chant comes to a conclusion, Maggie finds herself surrounded by the friends and family she helped bring together, their paths inextricably entwined—none of them wholly repaired or made new, but more akin to “the old dishes that had been unused for decades, that were chipped and faded, but still serviceable” (Haruf 299). Those dishes are proudly laid upon the table for their impending fellowship. The lone voice of Maggie's father absently calls out into the emptiness: “Hello. Is anyone there” (Haruf 299). No doubt Maggie Jones was there to answer his call.
Haruf, Kent. Plainsong. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.
Molino, Michael R. “Kent Haruf.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 292: Twenty-First Century American Novelists. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Lisa Abney and Suzanne Disheroon. Gale, 2004. 148-154. Web.
Contributor's Note: Janace Tashjian is a Cerro Coso student. She enjoyed writing this literary interpretation for English 111: Introduction to Types of Literature.