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650 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Featured Retrospective: “Great Books Forgotten or Unknown” *

Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

by SHJ Editors

Click on images
and links for info:

Alfred A. Knopf
Cover of Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Alfred A. Knopf
Cover of Eventide, by Kent Haruf

Alfred A. Knopf
(First edition, 2015)
Cover of Our Souls at Night, first edition, by Kent Haruf

We recommend reading all of the books written by Kent Haruf, especially Plainsong, a captivating story about a world mostly ignored by writers and almost never the subject found in popular novels, namely the plains of eastern Colorado, its small towns, its ranchers and farmers and teachers and mothers and fathers. And its teenagers growing up and acting out in various ways (some savory, others unsavory). In the course of Haruf’s tale, seven lives intertwine in unexpected ways when one underage girl falls in love, gets pregnant, and finds herself abandoned and at the mercy of the elements. How Haruf narrates the girl’s story and the stories of those who come to her rescue in small and large ways makes for spellbinding reading.

Plainsong was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. William Kittridge, iconic storyteller and author of Hole in the Sky: A Memoir, said:

What a pleasure it was to read Plainsong, in which generosity and taking care are operative principles, and practical kindness grows wild like lilies in a meadow. Kent Haruf has fashioned a masterpiece. I flat loved it.

Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the Los Angeles Time Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award. Verlyn Klinkenborg captured the appealing humanity and beauty of the book when he called it “a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader” (from The Sheltering Sky in the New York Times Book Review, October 1999).

Haruf (whose last name rhymes with “sheriff” **) was born in Pueblo, Colorado, the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated with a BA degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965, where he would later teach, and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1973.

He spent more than three decades teaching English and writing, including a stint with the Peace Corps in Turkey. Before becoming a writer, he had worked in a range of places, including a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, hospitals in Denver and Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, and an alternative high school in Wisconsin.

Haruf lived with his wife, Cathy, in Salida, Colorado and had three daughters from his first marriage. All six of his novels take place in the fictional town of Holt in eastern Colorado, an amalgamation of several places where he lived in the early 1980s, including Yuma, Colorado. His first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), received a Whiting Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. And, in 2004, five years after Plainsong was published and became a bestseller, Knopf released its sequel, Eventide.

Essays and short stories by Haruf have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines such as Best American Short Stories 1987, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Grand Street, Granta, Puerto del Sol, and Prairie Schooner.

In addition to writing six novels, he collaborated with photographer Peter Brown on West of Last Chance, a visual arts/prose hybrid which describes life in the central High Plains of the U.S. The book was awarded the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

On November 30, 2014, when Kent Haruf died at his home in Salida at 71 years of age, the world of writing lost one more national treasure.


Webmaster’s Notes:

* The title “Great Books Forgotten or Unknown” is borrowed with permission from a blog created in 2007 by Contributing Editors Walter Cummins and Thomas E. Kennedy.

** From “Chicken Farmer to Writer: An Interview with Kent Haruf” by Ira Sukrungruang which was first published in the Colorado Review in Fall 2001 and then reprinted by the Center for Literary Publishing on 1 December 2014 within this obituary/tribute: Kent Haruf, 1943–2014.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury