Reviews

  • 8 Mar 2014

    praise for Haven’s Wake :
    “Some­times the title of a book cap­tures its content per­fectly. Such is the case with Haven’s Wake, Ladette Randolph’s novel of modern Men­nonite life and death and family secrets. When Haven Grabel, an eighty-​​five-​​year-​​old family patriarch, dies in a tractor accident on his Nebraska farm, his children and grand­children and in-​​laws imme­di­ately gather around his grieving widow. They mean well but, during the two days pre­ceding Haven’s funeral, an array of old antag­o­nisms are revisited and long-​​buried griev­ances come to the surface. Haven’s Wake, of course, refers to those two days, the family vigil that they all must endure. But “wake,” in this case, means more than simply the Grabels’s rit­u­al­istic watch. It also implies the aftermath, the con­se­quences, the trail that follows in Haven Grabel’s absence. Without his presence, the present unravels in pat­terns rem­i­niscent of the past. Ran­dolph is espe­cially adept at weaving Men­nonite beliefs into her story of familial angst. The habit of shunning, of turning away from someone whose behavior or beliefs are unac­ceptable, plays a key role. So does the habit of never talking about some­thing painful, never dis­cussing tragedy, never con­fronting issues. Elsa, Haven’s widow, is par­tic­u­larly adroit at ignoring whatever she doesn’t want to acknowledge or admit. Her sons and her grand­children are equally adroit at reopening old family wounds and laying them bare. If all this sounds like a sobering reading expe­rience, rest assured it isn’t. Haven’s Wake may offer a real­istic nar­ration of grief and uncom­fortable family history, but it also pulls together new con­nec­tions and new ways of under­standing. Elsa may be flawed in many ways, but she loves her off­spring and she believes in her church. When she is most troubled, she plays hymns on her piano, singing softly to herself or in harmony with others. And when the family rela­tion­ships are fraying, the sense of com­munity pre­vails. Friends support friends, family sup­ports family, and those threads hold the story lines together like one of Elsa’s beau­tiful quilts. Another won­derful element of this touching novel is Randolph’s sense of the rural Nebraska land­scape. Returning readers of “Bookin’ with Sunny” know that I always appre­ciate a writer who draws scenery well. Throughout Haven’s Wake we hear the cicada and grasshopper and bum­blebee songs, smell the tas­seled corn, touch the rich black soil, watch thun­der­heads build and dis­perse. As the novel nears its climax, a summer storm inun­dates a nearby town but com­pletely misses the Grabel farm. So, too, the family storms may batter the par­tic­i­pants but they ulti­mately con­tinue their lives together and apart. In the hands of an inex­pe­ri­enced author, this par­allel would be too heavy-​​handed. Ran­dolph, however, handles the con­nection with great finesse. After the funeral home viewing, when problems and pas­sions are most tense and intense, one of the Grabel wives says to her husband, “You know, Jonathan, yours isn’t the only family that behaves badly when it’s grieving.” How very true. Closing Haven’s Wake, I just now glanced at the cover and for a moment misread the title. My eyes saw “Heaven’s Wake,” rather than Haven’s. Perhaps that’s part of the title’s magic, and the novel’s magic, too. Despite the griev­ances, the family endures. That’s the real aftermath of Haven Grabel’s demise. - Ann Ronald”

    —Ann Ronald
  • 28 Mar 2013

    praise for Haven’s Wake :
    Haven, the aptly named patriarch of a rural Mennonite family in eastern Nebraska, dies in a bizarre tractor accident, which reunites his family for several days in July 2009. Disparate and even dysfunctional, the Grebel clan is forced onto the farm’s close quarters where long-ignored secrets and tragedies threaten to surface, despite the desperation of Haven’s widow, Elsa, to keep them buried. Will Elsa finally forgive her son for renouncing the Mennonite religion and lifestyle? Will brothers Jonathan and Jeffrey let a sibling’s horrific but decades-old death tear them further apart? Will granddaughter Anna June cope with the loss of her best friend? Randolph’s (A Sandhills Ballad, 2009) examination of these conflicts, especially the shirking of religion, is at times heavy-handed and obvious. During her more subtle moments, however, Randolph thoughtfully contemplates individuality in a community of conformity, truth in a world of evasiveness, and honesty in a sea of hurt. With prose that vivifies the intricate patchwork of characters and captures the landscape’s simplicity, Haven’s Wake explores “the various attempts to explain the unexplainable,” including family, faith, and death.

    —Katharine FronkBooklist
  • 28 Mar 2013

    praise for Haven’s Wake :

    “Haven’s Wake,” Ladette Randolph, University of Nebraska Press, $16.95 Elsa Grebel, over her long life, has decided that some things are better to ignore. Others are better to forget. And many are better not to know at all. So, when a neighbor tells Elsa that her husband, Haven, has died in a tractor accident, it’s not in Elsa’s nature to question the neighbor’s claim that Haven “didn’t suffer none.” “Haven’s Wake” is the second novel from Ladette Randolph, a fifth-generation Nebraskan who currently edits the literary journal Ploughshares. As in her previous novel, “A Sandhills Ballad,” “Haven’s Wake” is set in rural Nebraska, but this time in the (fictional) Mennonite community of Bethel -- an easy drive from Lincoln and Seward -- over five July days before and after Haven’s funeral. Elsa’s two sons, Jonathan and Jeffrey, have strayed in their own ways. Jonathan, the better adjusted of the two, has given up the faith and lives in Boston. Jeffrey, who still lives nearby, has significant mental health issues (probably bipolar disorder) and seems to resent his brother’s escape. The Grebels are far from perfect; and even Elsa, the most strict observer of the faith, has more in common with the heterodox Jonathan than she would ever admit. By choosing to suppress a deep secret in an effort to keep themselves together, the family ultimately opens its deepest fissures. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of the stubborn Elsa, who grows more unlikeable as the book progresses; to Jonathan, who has the most to learn from revisiting his past; and to Anna June, the youngest grandchild (Jeffrey’s daughter) and the book’s most charming character, who keeps a “True Secret History” of Bethel’s hidden stories. As in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”-- another Midwestern novel concerned with the religious -- the pious and righteous in Randolph’s work are as complicated as the so-called apostates. Lincoln readers will recognize a few landmarks, including Tam O’Shanter and O Street, but may also concur with local insights: In Nebraska, “[y]ou couldn't not notice the sky and the way it made you feel at once infinitesimal and at the center of everything.” Randolph lives in Boston (Ploughshares is published at Emerson College), but she seems at home in the Great Plains. While occasionally veering too far into the sentimental, the story is quietly powerful. Randolph’s sentences are spry, unpretentious and often refreshing. The book is less about faith and more about how open we are to our deepest scars: Elsa may think ignorance bliss, but for Jonathan, “once he'd become aware” of the world outside, “he couldn't pretend not to know.”

    —Greg WalklinLincoln Journal online
  • 8 Dec 2010

    praise for A Sandhills Ballad :
    “A Sandhills Ballad was the winner of the Nebraska Book Award for fiction in 2010”