I read and loved Kent Haruf’s “Plainsong” when it was released in 2000. Beautiful, spare, moving, grounded in time and place. About a pregnant teenager taken in by two old men, brothers, both bachelors. I weep just remembering their story; how they save her and how, in turn, she saves them.
The other day I was stocking up at my (now closing) Borders and came upon Kent Haruf’s “Where You Once Belonged” (1990.) This story is similar to “Plainsong” in its scope but tighter (176 pages) in its telling. I loved this one, too. (His “Eventide,” published in 2005, not so much.)
Haruf sets these novels in Holt, Colorado. It’s small town agrarian America. People work hard, drink too much, start businesses and families, revere their high school athletes, cheat, steal, die, get mangled, and sometimes ruin each others lives. Sounds tawdry? It feels real in Haruf’s hands, expertly told. We feel the harsh winds off the prairie, the crunch of fresh snow, the hunt for arrowheads after a hard rain. It’s Laura Ingalls Wilder on fast forward, R-rated.
“Where You Once Belonged” begins with the return of a native, Jack Burdette, a football star who woos Wanda Jo, the town’s prettiest girl, and lands one of the most respectable jobs: manager of the Farmer’s Co-op Elevator. The story is told by Pat Arbuckle, another native son, a classmate of Burdette’s who owns and runs the town’s newspaper.
Burdette leaves on a business trip and returns a day late and…married. So long Wanda Jo, hello Jessie Miller. Jack and Jessie Burdette have two boys, and when she’s pregnant with a third, Burdette flees, first outfitting himself royally from the town’s clothiers. With the help of the co-op’s accountant, Burdette has skimmed $200,000 of co-op money.
Mad? The farmers want to kill him. But you can’t kill what you can’t find: Jack Burdette has vanished.
Wife Jessie is the one who suffers. She signs their house over to the co-op and gets a job waitressing at the town’s diner. A devoted mother to her two little boys, it’s unsettling to read how she behaves while pregnant with her third, a girl who doesn’t survive.
Recovering from his own double loss, newsman Arbuckle falls in love with Jessie Burdette. Theirs is a sweet romance. Can it last?
Not when Jack Burdette comes back to town.