Wow! Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph (2013) was phenomenal for my reading challenge. I’m reading my way across the USA, focusing on books with a strong sense of place that help me “get to know” each state–the landscape, the people, the culture, the history. Haven’s Wake was a perfect choice for Nebraska.

That year the corn in eastern Nebraska stood ten feet tall by early July, and rain fell steadily across the state through the spring and now into summer, replenishing the groundwater and bringing to an end nearly a decade of drought. Old-timers claimed they’d never seen such a year for crops. It seemed too good to be true. Everyone that summer watched the sky for trouble: flash floods, tornadoes, straight winds, or hail, all the ways there were to destroy in minutes their hopes for the year.

The book tells the story of Haven Grebel’s family; the main story takes place in the aftermath of his death, and therefore involves both meanings of the word “wake.” As the various family members grieve (and squabble) we learn more of their history through flashbacks and reminiscences.

We also learn more about the Mennonite way of life and some of their customs, good and bad. One of the themes of the book has to do with the destructiveness of shunning–not just the social and emotional exclusion of a person who is seen to have done wrong to the community, but also the refusal to discuss or acknowledge the bad things that have happened in life. There is a wonderful sense of peace and calm simplicity to the book and to the life of Haven Grebel, and, to some extent, Elsa and rest of the community. Yet, there are forbidden topics that lurk under the surface and occasionally cause ripples. Randolph gently brings them to the surface and examines them, and the consequences of hiding them. Although she equates this practice with the Mennonite punishment of shunning, it reminds me of the way in which most people don’t talk about stillborn children or certain other tragedies.

What I loved most about this book was the beauty of the writing. It reminded me of the writing in a short story–every word carefully chosen for best effect, and every phrase crafted in a way to evoke just the right sense. Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. was, by contrast, a sprawling, rambling epic of a thousand pages–Haven’s Wake is about 250 pages of sparse, pure prose. It seems to me a comment on the landscape they describe: Indiana’s dense thicket of undergrowth and swamp and meandering river, compared to Nebraska’s wide open prairie, with its sometimes brooding sky.

The descriptions of Nebraska are often spare, but just as often evocative.

On the night air Jonathan smelled an earthy vegetable brew, a smell unique to summer nights in eastern Nebraska: corn in full tassel, new-mown grass, damp earth, a slight and not unpleasant smell of cow manure from neighboring farms. He breathed in, drawing the smells deep into his lungs, wanting suddenly to store it in his cells so he could call it forth later.

Or this one about the light:

Sunlight in Nebraska is bright. In July it can feel like the light of an interrogation. As a kid, Jonathan had found refuge from the intensity of that light in the barn. For him light had a sound, and the harsh sunlight of Nebraska was at times cacophonous. By contrast, the light in the barn was a whisper as it filtered through the old siding and the clerestory windows tucked under the eaves. At a certain time of day in midsummer, Jonathan knew, a shaft of sun entered through the haymow door and cast a dramatic spotlight on the floor near the old holding pens.

Randolph’s plains are not empty–there are birds, and other flora and fauna:

She noticed the desiccated bodies of dead moths and flies in the bottom of the window frames and resisted the temptation to clean. Outside she heard cattle lowing in the neighbor’s pasture. A small plane droned across the fields. A meadowlark trilled in the ditch beside the gravel road. Inside a wasp knocked against the window glass, trying to get out.

And here we have a whole flock of birds, including a couple of new ones:

The crickets were out, as were the birds: meadowlarks and cardinals, blackbirds and jays, sparrows and robins, and redheaded woodpeckers. Now and then a mourning dove cooed.

Surprisingly enough, we haven’t seen a cardinal before, though they certainly are common in Indiana and Kansas, or a mourning dove, which are common throughout the whole country. The meadowlark could be either an Eastern or a Western since the book is set in summer, but I’ll go with Western, as they are in Nebraska year-round (even though that makes it a repeat and not a new species). The blackbird here could be a yellow-headed, but since it’s not specified, it’s probably the more ubiquitous red-winged blackbird (which is mentioned specifically in other passages). The jay is almost certainly a blue jay–the only jay in most of the eastern half of the country–which is also, surprisingly, a new sighting. The sparrow mentioned has no description so it could be any one of a dozen or more species, and the robin we’ve seen before, but the red-headed woodpecker is a very nice addition to our list. And although there are Eastern and Western varieties of screech owls, their ranges don’t overlap the way the meadowlarks’ do, so we can safely add the Eastern Screech Owl to our Life List of Birds in Books.

And this lovely description of Elsa’s garden reads like a garden catalog, but still manages to capture Nebraska. Some of the flowers and plants I recognize from my own gardens in upstate New York and Wisconsin, but some–like Husker penstemon (whose very name evokes Nebraska Cornhuskers), and bishop’s goutweed–are unfamiliar to me.

It was a true prairie garden, containing both native grasses and flowers: little and big bluestem, side oats, prairie coneflowers, Husker penstemon, speedwell and yellow yarrow, old-fashioned tiger lilies, iris, rudbeckia, sedum, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, and hollyhocks. In the shade were hosta and bishop’s goutweed, astilbe, and lily of the valley. She had flowering crabapple trees and redbuds and whitebuds, serviceberry and chokecherry. There was always something in bloom.

Twice, Randolph mentions a screech owl’s call in a unique way–once she calls it a “whinny,” and the other time she calls it a “chortle.” Both made me want to know more. The online Audubon Field Guide has audio files that you can listen to of the characteristic calls of the Eastern Screech Owl–the whinny really does sound like a horse’s whinny, but they describe the other as a monotone trill rather than a chortle. For anyone who’s not used to thinking of owls making any sound other than “hoo hoo,” you should definitely check these out!

Then there is this lovely description of a coyote’s call.

In the distance he heard the laughing yelp of a coyote celebrating a kill. Soon it was joined by the howls of the pack. Jonathan thought there was no sound in the world as soul piercingly lonely as that of the coyote.

Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph was just a beautiful and beautifully-written book! I’ve written before about the bleakness I was seeing in some of the books from Kansas; this one evoked the isolation and openness of the prairie without giving way to the bleakness. And it acknowledged the meanness and occasional cruelty without being overwhelmed by the pettiness–hope still shone through, despite the undercurrents of despair.

Randolph has set a pretty high bar for me for our Nebraska books–here’s hoping my other choices can reach as high!

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