For those used to living in cities, the plains of the United States can take some getting used to. Mile after mile of mostly flat countryside with only the wind blowing through the tall grass seems to give the landscape its name -- the plains. Still, unexpected beauty occurs from time to time -- the sky never looks bluer than when contrasted against the bleached gold of wheat fields in late summer, and the sight of a clunky old gas station after 50 miles of nothing is as nostalgic as it is welcome. The towns, especially, still retain some semblance of civic pride, with plaques announcing the site of some historic significance, or banners crossing downtown welcoming visitors to "Pioneer Days."
Driving through Holt, Colo., the fictional small town of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, you might be tempted to stop at the Holt Cafe, where you might be waited on by a tired-looking high school girl, or where you might be seated in the booth behind the two salt-of-the-earth farmers sipping coffee from sturdy white mugs. You might see two little boys pass by outside the window, followed in due time by a middle-aged teacher out for a quick lunch.
For author Kent Haruf, the line that separates fact from fiction is sometimes blurred at the deepest levels.
"What I want to think is that even though I'm writing about rural America, because that's what I know best, I also want to think that I'm writing about elemental issues or elemental problems," says Haruf. "There are lonely people and isolated people and people who are grasping for some connection, and those are not conditions limited to rural America."
In Plainsong, Haruf writes of two little boys abandoned by their mother, a high school girl who's just found out she's pregnant, a plainspoken but wise schoolteacher and two aging farm brothers. In one of the book's most remarkable plot twists, the schoolteacher arranges for the pregnant high school girl to stay at the old brothers' farmhouse.
"What I'm trying to do is suggest the possibility that in crazy times like our own, that it is possible for people who are very unlikely characters to come together out of mutual need," says Haruf. "The old brothers need something; they need their lives enlarged in some ways, and the girl needs some place that's safe and secure. Even though at first they can't talk to each other, something as elemental as that, they do learn how to talk to each other and they do become a kind of family. They become connected in emotional and spiritual ways, and I want to believe that's possible."
In writing Plainsong, Haruf experimented with the same kind of intuitive search for connection he explores in the book. He wrote the book -- partly in longhand, partly on an old manual typewriter -- with a stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. While it sounds like one of the more unorthodox writing practices out there, when Haruf explains it, it suddenly makes sense.
"I wanted to figure out a way to get in touch with my distinctive impulses and not be analytical yet," Haruf says. "And so a way of doing that is to shut your eyes and write blindly so that you're trying to pay attention to whatever spontaneous kinds of sentences come to your mind. It's an old notion, I suppose, to blind yourself so you can see in some sense."
Haruf is no stranger to the rural landscape he writes so knowingly of in Plainsong. He had written two novels previously, both set in small farming communities, in the 1980s. With both novels out of print, it was especially heartening that not only was Plainsong the sleeper hit of 1999, it became a finalist for the National Book Award.
"I had no expectation that this book would do anything different than the other books had done," says Haruf. "They had done well critically, but neither had sold very well."
Haruf was pleased to be nominated for one of the nation's most prestigious literary awards, but took the news with characteristic self-possession.
"I was at home and somebody from Chicago called me -- I didn't even know what he was talking about," laughs Haruf. "So it was a big surprise and very gratifying. It turns out it's a good group of books to be among."
Kent Haruf reads from Plainsong on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main. Call: 838-0206.