What makes a family? Who is a father or mother? Kent Haruf’s beautiful, piercing novel, Plainsong, raises these two questions central to adoption and assisted reproduction. The lyrical book creates a vivid picture of a small prairie town in Colorado through two intertwined stories – one of a pregnant teenage girl taken into the home and hearts of two wizened bachelor farmers and the other of a family torn apart by a wife and mother’s clinical depression.

The teenager’s mother locks her daughter out of their house on learning of the pregnancy. Bereft and alone, the girl turns for help to her high school teacher, who persuades two cattle rancher brothers to provide shelter for her. The odd threesome learns to care deeply for each other and becomes more of a family than the teen had ever experienced living with her biological mother.

In the parallel story, a husband and two school age sons struggle with the paralyzing depression of their wife and mother. She slowly leaves them, first withdrawing into her bed, then into a rented house nearby, and, finally, to her older sister’s Denver apartment. The father’s strength and love for his sons as he becomes both mother and father to them, and their love for each other, help them overcome their loss.

Plainsong’s characters teach us what makes a family; protectiveness and caring define family and parenthood, regardless of biology.