Fictional farms a welcome antidote to winter’s malaise
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:43AM
The French created a word for my February funk: ennui, defined as a “feeling of listlessness and general dissatisfaction resulting from lack of activity or excitement.”
My personal ennui may have a little more to do with seasonal affective disorder, but I will probably never find out because I don’t have the energy to visit a specialist.
I am active, however. I walk outside in even the coldest conditions and sometimes in February that may feel like the best part of the day, except when I make mint chocolate brownies (spread a loose layer of Junior Mints over the baking brownies about three minutes before they are to come out of the oven). When I venture into a place like Holt, Colo., though, without ever leaving our village drear, I wonder how it is that it took me 12 years to get there.
Holt is the fictional setting of Kent Haruf’s best-selling 1999 novel Plainsong. It features several interacting characters including two aging brothers whose lives revolve around their cattle farm, a high school history teacher and his two school-age sons who are grappling with their parents split, a frightened and pregnant teenager kicked out of her home and an English teacher who somehow brings the characters in interesting ways.
For example, she suggests the pregnant teenager should live with the aging brothers. No the novel doesn’t exactly have gripping action leading to breathless page turning, but there is a certain respectability and human dignity we find in these characters that is reassuring and even, to use the words of many of the critics, uplifting.
The novel conveys a feeling of hopefulness and even purpose. Everything will work out in the end, you feel, without having been subjected to a lot of overly sentimental or trite devices. Plainsong is aptly titled, too.
Unfortunately for the author, 1999 was a great year for fiction. Though Plainsong was on the short list for the National Book Award, joining the far darker but as symmetrical House of Sand and Fog, as well as Hummingbird House and Who Do You Love, those great works lost to Ha Jin’s Waiting. Haruf is scheduled to come out with a new novel in March called Benediction.
Holt in Plainsong reminded me of another fictional area, Port William in Kentucky, where academic, rural activist, poet and novelist Wendell Berry sets his works of fiction. Hannah Coulter, Berry’s seventh novel, spans the Great Depression, World War II and beyond and describes how the farming families work hard and work together in community and how progress may or may not benefit them. The narrator’s love of her husband, family, farm and community are portrayed as she looks back over her life. While the plot may not be suspenseful or gripping there’s something here too that is profound and meaningful and really touches the reader’s spirit.
Both convey hope. February, the month that is the shortest and feels like the longest, will end. We are already enjoying more than 10 hours of daylight, when the sun breaks through the clouds. But, I can head to other places while I wait.
“To love to read is to exchange hours of ennui for hours of delight,” said Charles de Montesquieu, the French social commentator and political thinker from the Enlightenment. ~.