The Guideposts senior editor shares why the "smart" book produces a moral compass.

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A long time ago, when I had just finished graduate school and started my first job in Los Angeles, I took a car ride on a hot California night. I drove from L.A. to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I planned to meet friends for a weekend backpacking trip. I left after work Friday, sat in traffic, then finally dropped down into the vast Central Valley, where the air smells of farms and brown grass.

It was an anxious time. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life. Impulsively I’d taken a job writing for a small community section of the Orange County Register newspaper, hundreds of miles away from my friends and former life in Berkeley. Half of me wanted to be a journalist. Half of me thought I should have stayed in academia, what I’d gone to graduate school for in the first place. Had I just made a big, fat mistake, I wondered?

About the time I reached the Valley, with the long, straight ribbon of Highway 99 illuminated in my headlights, I put on an audio book. I’d picked the book up at random from my parents’ house, where I was living while looking for my own apartment. (More angst: Not exactly a morale booster to graduate from school and move right back into your childhood bedroom.)

The book was called Plainsong by Kent Haruf. It took me awhile even to figure out what it was about, since it unfolds slowly in spare, exact prose. Soon, though, I was pulled deep inside its story of a small rural town on the high plains of Colorado, where a high school girl gets pregnant and, through a series of events, winds up staying with two elderly cattle farmers, bachelor brothers who know a great deal more about roping steers than about teenagers.

The book instantly calmed me, and for a long time I puzzled over why. At first I thought it was the rural setting, then I wondered whether it was the language, a sequence of slender, line-straight sticks framing a window of perfect clarity.

Whatever it was, the book sustained me all along the highway, then up the twisty two-lane road through the foothills into the park. I remember being the only person on that twisty road so late at night. And I remember the road was under construction, so that a few times I had to stop, alone, at a flashing red light controlling traffic where the road narrowed to one lane. I sat with the window down, engine idling, oak trees diminishing into a vast blackness, and all the while Plainsong telling its strangely captivating story.

Only now, here in New York, a place as far from the Sierras as I can imagine, do I realize why the book so affected me. I just finished rereading it, and this time it was obvious. Plainsong is a book about goodness, more particularly about the goodness that emanates from obscure, out-of-the-way lives that go unnoticed by the engines of success in our success-mad world.

The McPheron brothers who take in pregnant Victoria Roubideaux are not what you would call promising. They’re a pair of scruffy old duffers who barely talk to one another and live in a falling-down house with tractor parts on the kitchen table. They are exceedingly competent with their cattle. But when a schoolteacher of Victoria’s, who happens to know the men, asks them to take her in—her own mother has kicked her out of the house—they are, to say the least, alarmed.

They manage, though, and by the end of the book Victoria has her baby, and the men, along with a few other troubled souls in town, form a kind of makeshift family. They even take Victoria shopping for a crib. When Victoria’s former boyfriend, a frightening and abusive man several years older than she, drives to the ranch to take her away with him, the men escort him back to his car with a sudden, startling show of strength. (“They lifted him off his feet, squirming and twisting and caterwauling, and carried him out the door, and they were hard and determined and stronger than he was.”)

Stronger than he was. That’s why the book captivated me. Above all else, Plainsong is a book determined not to languish simply as one more ambivalent demonstration of the incessant brokenness of human life. It is a smarter book than that, more deliberate. It says that somehow a life lived amid sagebrush doing repetitive chores in scouring weather with few words and less recognition produces a toughness and moral compass that will not fail.

I needed that then, on that dark, warm summer night, lacking an internal compass of my own. And I need it now, as I believe we all do. I need there to be goodness, and I need goodness to be stronger. Of course a novel offers no more than fictional proof of such a thing. But I like to hope that, sometimes at least, that’s proof enough.

In any case, when I finally reached the campsite where I was meeting my friends I didn’t want to turn the car off. I sat for a few minutes listening, until I remembered there were people trying to sleep around me. I cut the engine and immediately the dark took over. I could sense the surrounding mountains, their intent silence. I spread a tarp, got in my sleeping bag and lay down. Just before I fell asleep, I looked up through the trees. There, hard and sharp in the deep black sky, stars shone.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].

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