“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.”