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by John Q McDonald --- 16 August 2019

Plains Song

For Female Voices

by Wright Morris

There is something virtuous, we think, in a life lived honorably and with a sense of duty to family and country. We might quietly plod through life, doing our work, the chores and efforts that go into producing food for our tables, maybe a little extra to sell. It's a traditional thing. It's a relatively recent development in our culture and the culture around the world, to feel entitled to a different life, one that actualizes our potential, suits our talents and, ideally, leads to greater wealth and leisure. We expect more from life. But we haven't always had the luxury to do so. That kind of luxury is a largely Western phenomenon, but with the shrinking of the world high expectations have gone global. Nowadays, when we encounter people just doing their work, not expecting much more than to get by and hopefully provide well for their children, we tend to consider these folks the salt of the earth, the epitome of a quietly honorable life. They're heroes of a sort. But we don't always want to be like them. We dream big, don't we?

It's fairly impressive for such a small book, clocking in at just 229 pages, to sprawl across three generations of early-twentieth-century women living in rural Nebraska. Cora Atkins is the matriarch of a family of women who, over the years, give birth only to girls, much to the chagrin of hard-working patriarchs, who wouldn't mind having a couple of sons around to help out with the chores. Cora, herself, is duty-bound to scrape out an independent existence on the edge of the prairie. While her mostly silent husband, Emerson, works out in the fields, she builds a home and a garden that sustains and shelters them. Their life is hard and passionless. Life and death come easy in their pioneer world. Cora gives birth to Madge, and Emerson's brother's wife gives birth do to Sharon Rose. Madge is soon ready for marriage and Sharon chafes at the expectations of thieir county lifestyle. She's ready to upstakes and move to Chicago, never to look back.

Life is such, though, that never looking back isn't all that easy. Sharon wants her cousin to escape the low expectations of their background, and so maintains a connection with Madge and Madge's children. Her dreams for her extended family are easily stymied, though, and Sharon is torn between love and disdain. The simple life is not for her and she cannot accept that it is enough for others.

All of this comes out in a short novel rich with poetic prose and vividly spare descriptions of the landscape that suit its native emptiness. Morris takes us from austere Cora down to Cora's grand-daughter Caroline, who is even less enamored of stoic farm life than her aunt Sharon. The book was one of Morris's last, and was published in 1980, when he was in his seventies. His evocation of the lives of these women is surprisingly rich given its spare language. He depends upon his readers engaging an emotional connection with their own histories, and for the interested reader, this works, almost brilliantly. In the early 21st century, it is notable to consider a male writer who so determinedly takes on the voices of generations of women. How did he do his research? Has he been presumputuous of their concerns? Or has he merely tapped into a cultural thread that runs between pioneering stoicism and a liberated world of aspiration and passion? Surely the latter. The book fits into its own subgenre of deeply felt historical narratives of an inherently American cultural DNA. It is itself austere and yet is run through with restrained passion and hope.

(For this book, Morris was awarded his second National Book Award for fiction in 1981.)

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