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Wright Morris: Plains Song: For Female Voices

It is a curse in this family that the women bear only daughters, if anything at all is the opening sentence of this book. (He could have said that it is a curse that the fathers only father daughters or, indeed, speaking as the father of a daughter, I would say how lucky they are to have daughters.). The focal point of this novel is Cora Atkins who, as the novel starts, is dying. We follow her story from childhood to this point.

Cora was considered not particularly marriageable, as she was six feet tall, flat-chested and not particularly attractive. God pity the man you marry! said her aunt but, she was intelligent and hard-working so there was never any doubt that men would. The Atkins brothers, Emerson and Orion, had gone out West to homestead government land. Emerson came back to get supplies, met Cora, proposed, was accepted and married her in the space of two weeks. Cora was not sure what to expect but she went along with whatever came along. Sex was the main problem. The first time, she was so frightened she bit her hand to the bone and the scar remained with her for the rest of her life. She and Emerson both maintained that a horse had bitten her.

Emerson and Orion shared a house, though, eventually, Orion would have a separate house. The brothers were initially close but soon drifted apart. Cora, meanwhile, did what was needed but soon had her own domain, the chickens and the garden and, with the money she made from selling eggs would buy what she wanted. She soon gave birth to a daughter, christened Beulah Madge but, eventually, known only as Madge. She was a quiet girl, given to overweight. Soon it was Orion’s turn and he came back from a hunting expedition with Belle, something of hillbilly girl and still quite young. Cora found her a bit loud and a bit intrusive but she was very good with children and looked after Madge. She gave birth to three daughters in succession. Sharon Rose was loud like her mother but got on well with Madge. Eula Stacy died after only a few months. Emerson and Cora were shocked when she was buried in an unmarked grave, unconsecrated grave in a field. Fayrene Dee survived but her mother did not.

We follow the stories not just of Cora, Emerson and Orion but of their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren up to the present day (i.e. 1980). The mothers generally produce more daughters, though the last generation do manage one or two boys. There are two main themes that we follow during this book, apart from the obvious ones of the stories of the families.

There are two key characters, who are contrasted. The first is Cora, who shows streaks of independence, as with her eggs and gardening, but is also the rock on which the family is built. She is not particularly affectionate. Indeed, she is happy to leave her daughter and her nieces to the care of first Belle and then Anna, a Bohemian woman Orion hires after Belle’s death. Sharon later says of her She cares more for her chickens than she does for us. However, she is always there, always steadfast, always working for the family. It is she for example, who buys a player piano with her plan to help the children’s musical education. It is Sharon who takes to it – she is soon called a Wunderkind – and it is Sharon who goes on to have a musical career.

On the other hand, Sharon is louder, more boisterous and more independent. She and Madge get on very well and, when Sharon goes off to study music, Sharon misses Madge more than the other way round. However, there is a conflict between Cora and Sharon. Cora does not like Sharon’s boisterousness. A key episode occurs when the women and girls visit the Chicago’s World Fair. Sharon is living in Chicago at the time and the plan is for Madge and Cora to meet her on the last day. At the last minute, Cora declines, not wanting to see Sharon.

Sharon’s independent streak and the role it plays is shown by a comment by Caroline, one of Madge’s daughters, towards the end of the book, after Cora’s funeral. When commenting on marriage, Caroline says Aunt Sharon, we don’t get married anymore unless we want to. We all had your example.

The other key theme can best be described as how the world and people change and how these changes affect other people. We see it in several of the key relationships: Sharon-Madge, Emerson-Orion, most of the married couples. We also see it in the changing times. The Depression and Dust Bowl are barely mentioned but their effect is seen much later. The one significant external change is World War I, when Ned (Madge’s husband), without telling anyone, goes off on a hunting trip and and then joins the Canadian forces fighting in the war, before the US joins in. He comes back a very changed man, so much so that the family barely recognises him and he barely recognises them. The city-country axis is also important. Those that stay behind change little, while those that go to the city do change.

Perhaps the whole theme can be best summed by a comment by Bryan, a minor character. When Sharon says to him I do hope everything works out, he responds It always does. It just don’t work out the way you want it.

This was one of Morris’ last novels and it is interesting that he decides to focus on women and on a long period. There are few fireworks, though plenty of relatively unexpected events. Abode all, the story is carried by the different approaches to life of Cora and her niece, Sharon, and the contrast between the two women, one the matriarch of the family and the other a woman who has chosen not get married.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Harper & Row