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Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and trauma. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, is an impeccable portrayal of the resilience individuals require to overcome adversity. This adversity defines every character’s life, as they must fight to overcome hardship. People do not accumulate the same life experiences, thus incorporating the lives of seven characters give a relatable perspective in understanding such life struggles. By seeing how these characters adapt to the different problems presented to them one can better understand our ability to adapt to stressful events.
Plainsong takes place in Holt, Colorado, a land less densely populated than most readers could ever imagine. Told from the perspective of an omniscient third person narrator it is divided into individual chapters, and each chapter has a title bearing the name of one of the novel’s characters. The novel consists of a half-dozen characters, all who face major adversity, and each will have to learn to accept the change. However, these conflicts end up woven together, as the character’s lives eventually overlap.
Tom Guthrie is a local school teacher and the father of Ike and Bobby. Tom tries his best to continue life as normal although he is separating from his wife who is suffering from depression and is in isolation from her family. The struggle of this situation is even seen during one particular morning when Ike asked his father,
“Aren’t you going to have breakfast with us?
I can’t this morning.
Isn’t Mother coming down either?” (5)
This would guide one to believe that the boys miss their mother although she is still in the same house. When his wife finally moves to Denver, another problem presents itself in the form of a vindictive, failing student. His sons become victims of their father’s issue when the student bullies the kids to the point of committing a felony by taking them miles away from town, and stripping them of their closes before leaving them to walk home. This act of hate towards the boys is not the first struggle they had to endure since they had already dealt with the confusing behavior of their mother and suffered through the death of their horse.
The tension in the chapter when Tom finds out what the bully did to Ike and Bobby is unbearable as seen in this passage:
“Goddamn you, Guthrie said. You’re lying again. Then it was past talking. Guthrie rushed the boy and grabbed his shirt at the neck. You sorry son of a bitch. You leave my boys alone. He slammed the boy back against the front wall of the house, his fists up under his chin. If you ever touch my kids again…” (260)
Any individual reading this could surely understand his anger, but the worry is that he will do something violent and illegal to avenge his sons. Once confronted with the bully, blinded by his anger, Tom starts a shoving match that becomes more increasingly violent. The neighbor’s call to law enforcement comes not a moment too soon as it helped sort out the conflict, and showed that violence is not a good option for overcoming hardships as it just creates more problems.
In a emotionally fulfilling and symbolic act, the brothers Ike and Bobby Guthrie finally learn to accept that their mother is gone when they take their mother’s bracelet to the railroad. They place the jewelry on the tracks, wait for a train to come and crush it and bury the scraps.
“Her bracelet was flattened the same, thin as paper, they could break it….they poked a whole in the dirt and buried their mother’s bracelet in the dirt under the sheered bank and put a rock over the place.” (294)
This gesture seems to symbolize the brothers’ recognition that their mother will not return. It also sets the first time they are honest about the anger they feel, and hopefully this can give them the closure they need to move past this hardship.
Victoria Roubideaux is seventeen years old with few friends, has only ever had one boyfriend her entire life and becomes pregnant in the beginning of her perspective. Once her mother finds out why she’s been so sick, she is furious and locks her out of the house. After a while, you hear Victoria telling her mother,
“I’m sorry, Mama. Okay Mama. You don’t have to worry. I’m gone.” (32)
With nowhere to go, since her boyfriend has left town, Victoria turns to one of her teachers, Maggie Jones. Maggie explains the different options she has regarding her pregnancy but since Victoria wants to keep the baby she will need to start seeing Dr. Martin. Victoria asks if there is a woman doctor she can go to instead as it would make her more comfortable:
“Not here. Not in Holt.
Maybe I could go to another town.
Honey, Maggie Jones said. Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” (50)
This scene shows that life being a child is over for Victoria and that she must wake up face the consequences of her actions, to do what’s best for herself, and take advantage of the help being offered to her.
After living with Maggie for a short time, it became troublesome for her elder father so she contacted the Mcpherons to see if they would accept her offer and allow this young girl to stay with them. Raymond and Harold McPheron are single brothers and have lived their entire lives on their ranch miles away from the nearest town. Their parents died when they were young and have no knowledge about pregnancy, babies or even women for that matter. Until now, the brothers did not grow up with the social opportunities that would have put them in situations leading to new relationships, which amazingly leads them to agree to shelter her. This incredibly unselfish act show that Raymond and Harold have a resilience and courage to grow and embrace new things instead of allowing additional stress to overcome them.
Over time the McPheron brothers start to show an attachment to Victoria. An example of this is shown when the brothers want to take Victoria shopping for a baby crib because they are concerned that she spends too much time alone:
“Feeling lonesome and sorry like that, That can’t be good for the baby. On top of staying up all manner of hours and sleeping all morning.” (P. 173).
A few chapters earlier the brothers were worried about how much it was going to cost them to have the Guthrie boys help work the cattle, but while shopping for the crib they pick the most expensive one. This shows how much having Victoria there has impacted their lives, and instead of viewing it as an inconvenience do everything within their means to make the absolute best of the situation.
Maggie Jones is the only person that has some kind of relationship with all the main characters of the novel from the very beginning. She is also a school teacher, who is attracted to Tom Guthrie, and along with taking care of her senile father must assist Victoria in finding a proper home during her pregnancy. Being such an important character one may find it odd that there is only one chapter dedicated to her. However, her role is prominent throughout many other chapters so her involvement is well documented and not short sighted.
Although Maggie is dealing with her own problems she is very receptive when Victoria approaches her. She easily could have passed on the problem to someone else or simply sent Victoria away, but made it her mission to help in any way she saw fit. This includes but not limited to inviting her in, asking about the father of the baby, setting up the doctor appointments she needs, and finding her place to stay. Also after doing all of this for the young girl, she continues to remain available to Victoria and the McPherons to make sure everything is well. For example, Harold calls to ask about the baby crib:
“When Maggie picked up the phone Harold said to her, If you was to buy a crib, where would you think to get it?” (176).
Which proves even more how much she cares and how she is able to accommodate her life to aid in the adversity of others.
January Magazine editor, Linda L. Richards, understands the resiliency it takes to overcome life’s hardships. “This is a simple story of individual struggle with human problems dealt with in a very human way. Rather, the struggles we see detailed are wonderfully real and simply drawn with a story that hinges on such mortal — almost homely — challenges”. Although not everyone experiences all of the same obstacles in life, the general simplicity of the novel allows the reader to relate to the different hardships on many different levels. After reading, one may be convinced that there is actually a place like Holt, Colorado and that situations would act out exactly this way in the town. With this idea, New York Times editor, Verlyn Klinkenborg also takes notice to how relatable the novel is based on how humans face adversity saying, “It’s an imperfect world where things simply are as they are, their beauty and their ugliness depending on just that fact”.
In conclusion, Plainsong shows the resiliency of individuals when faced with hardship. Being resilient does not mean that an individual doesn’t experience anguish or difficulty. Emotional pain is common in people who have suffered major adversity in their lives, but it is the “bounce back” factor that is found variably in everyone. When confronted with the struggles of another individual, one will normally do everything within their means to help the person in distress, regardless of their own status, as the morality of helping another is psychologically uplifting. As seen in this novel some may be more resilient than others, but it is the norm that when faced with adversity an individual will overcome it, especially with the support of others.
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