Xhere is little plot, and at times itnseems that time itself has been lost: thenstory, set earlier in this century andnbrought up to the present, could havenhappened yesterday or tomorrow. Notnunlike a believer’s chant, the novelnflows, carrying emotion without argument,ncloser to music than to philosophy.nAs Morris describes the women’snchores, finished only to be started again,nhe captures the essence of a peculiarnfemale type: with a few strokes he cannportray both the sorrow and the pity ofnan existence centered on—indeed, denfined by—unending toil. Of Cora’sndaughter he writes:nShe was slow, and she took her workneasy, as she had to, but she liked it.nShe differed from Cora. Unfinishednwork weighed so on Osra’s mind shenmight get up at night, or from a nap,nto do it. Told to rest, she would reply,n’I can’t rest while there’s work to bendone.’ In that very fact Madge tooknpleasure. Leaving off at night, or restingnduring the day, she thought of thenunfinished ironing and mending andnfruit canning. That it remained to bendone reassured her. That it was endlessndid not depress her. She got upnpleased in the knowledge that therenwas work to be done. Ned had boughtnher a motor-driven washing machinenthat spared her the drudgery of tubwashingnsheets and diapers, but shenreserved his shirts and socks for thenpleasure it gave her to use the washboard.nShe liked the sound of it. Shenliked the feel of it under her knuckles.nEach ensuing detail is as simple and asnvital to baring this woman’s soul. Thenpicture is exact, intimate. One can almostnfeel her pleasure: genuine, andnnot in the least unlikely. These smallnevents—trivial perhaps, yet the verynstuff of her daily routine—become almostnelegant. But whatever satisfactionnsuch activity may provide (and satisfactionnit must be, feminist protestsnto the contrary notwithstanding), it isnnot joy. Ecstasy of any kind is altogethernabsent—why, unimaginable—to thencharacters of Plains Song.nThis is trlie even of Sharon, Cora’snniece, who leaves the farm for school innChicago to pursue music. Not unattractive,nSharon somehow remains singlen(never “having been asked”), andnhence (we are subtly led to conclude)nunfulfilled—perhaps, indeed, even morenso than the women she left on the farm.nFond of her family, she returns-notnoften, but she returns—observing it asna former inmate who understands andnhence cannot condemn even as she rejectsnthe almost brutal monotony ofncountry existence. Perhaps she realizesnthat Chicago has not fundamentallynchanged her: transplanted as she is innthe big city, Sharon long before camento share the qualities of her kinfolk.nLike them, she never allows herself tonrealize pain; she too exists calmly, resignednto being alive.nWhen, at the end of the novel, Sharonnreturns for Cora’s funeral, her distancenfrom the relatives she left behindnreveals itself as apparently immense,nalmost terrifying. But only at first; thennext impression is that no lesser gulfnseparates each of them. The Atkinses’nunwillingness (and, by now, inability)nto articulate their feelings, their lacknof any pretense, any attempt to “empathize,”nseem almost inhuman. Even so,nMorris is scrupulously careful to paintnthese people with compassion and withoutncondescension: at least they do notnprattle. Whether they also do not thinknis not clear—yet neither is it relevant:nthey live, each for his own time, perhapsnunconscious but surely not deludingnthemselves with either ideologynor self-pity.nIn contrast, the final scene of thenbook leaves the farm folk behind entirely,nto center on a woman Sharonnnnmeets on her trip—a woman who is bothnarticulate and “involved.” Against thenbackground of the Atkinses’ seemingnapathy (the resignation, the stoicismnof the unreflective), Alexandra Selkirk’snnervous, high-pitched lectures on thennew morality are not without some appeal.nOf her husband, whom she marriednyoung, she says that it had been “thencustom of the tribe” that had made himn-her jailer. This:n. . . had taught her that if you couldnchange the customs you could changenthe world. Just recently the flowernchildren had done it, with results shenfound nauseating. But it had beenndone. More change in ten years thannin the previous five centuries. Was itna flaw in her argument to find thatncustoms indeed might change, but notnwomen.” A cat was a cat, a dog was andog, but who could say what it wasnto be a woman? Without an image ofnwho they were, who •weie they?nThe questions are left hanging. Shenasks them, nevertheless, and one cannhardly fault her for it.nIt is tempting to conclude thatnMorris implies, in this novel, that thenquestions cannot be answered, thatnwornen-and men, for that matter—ncannot know who they are, that to looknfor “meaning” in life is futile, or rathernthat it simply emanates from daily existence,nthat any further conscious questnis sure to torment. The Atkins women,nfor example, did not bother to seek itn—hence both their nobility and, undoubtedly,ntheir ordeal. Such speculation,nwhile unavoidable—Morris himselfninvites it—must ultimately missnthe point of this eloquently understatednnovel. For, in truth, the book is reallynnot intended to have any particularnmoral. Like all good literature, it portraysncharacters compassionately, faithfully,nin their ordinary—which does notnmean uninteresting—attempts tonsurvive.nIn the very last section a tense Alexandranconfronts the tolerant, phlegmaticn• M H H H H M H I On]fovcmbcr/Dccembcr 1980n