Title: We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter
Author: Rachael Hanel
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
A Bit of A Tangent: Wow, I read this book a long time ago — the beginning of June, if my review archive is telling me the truth. That’s how pokey I’ve been at reviews lately. #badblogger. Anyway, you probably want to hear about the book….
Review: Rachael Hanel grew up in a small, prairie town in Minnesota, the daughter of the town’s gravedigger. Hanel spent her childhood amid the dead, wandering the graveyards in her community and learning the stories of the people who were buried there. But death took on a whole new meaning to Hanel when her father passed away unexpectedly when she was 15. With his death, her family started to fracture. In We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, Hanel explores her complicated relationship with death and looks at the role that small town cemeteries play in the history of small communities.
For most of this year, I’ve been on a kick reading nonfiction and memoirs about life in small towns, particularly small prairie towns like the one I live in. When I first heard about this book, setting piqued my interest while the title sold me on reading it (I just think it’s so sad and funny). On the whole, I thought this was a really lovely memoir, simple but effective in the stories it was trying to tell.
Hanel was an imaginative but slightly macabre kid — her favorite section of her elementary school library was the 100s, stories of the occult, paranormal and unexpected. She eventually moves on to the true crime section, picking up Helter Skelter as an 11-year-old in 1986, which is echoed in the imaginative way she approaches some sections of this memoir. When she’s revisiting the stories of older relatives she does a bit of imaginative musing. While that’d feel strange in a more straight nonfiction account, I think it works well in this particular book.
My favorite section of the book is one that talks about obituaries in small town newspapers. Hanel tells the story of how her grandmother sits down each week to read every word of her local newspaper, clipping stories (especially obituaries) and tucks them into a scrapbook:
In Grandma’s scrapbook, the world of the living meets the world of the dead. It’s a “thin space,” a notion from the tribe of ancient Celts from which she descended. In these thing spaces, a person can reach out and almost touch what’s on the other side, whether it be God, angels or the dead. Names and faces live on. The tiny stories in the scrapbook provide a portal.
Grandma isn’t ready to throw these relatives and neighbors away, to crumple them up and throw them in the trash alongside the mundane news. The billing and the snipping each day abate her greatest fear — that she, too, will fade into oblivion after death, that no one will remember he, no one will think of her time on earth, no one will speak her story.
That little snippet is part of the reason I love my job working for a community newspaper. We record history — births, weddings, deaths, and all of the news in between — so that stories are no forgotten. Hanel captures that importance and reverence just perfectly.
That passage also sums up what I think We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down is really about — the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell about our families. For Hanel, these stories come from death, from the dates and memorials on the gravestones that are part of her childhood. For others, from family photos or the newspaper or other sources. But our life and our death make our history, and that history is worth preserving. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down is a lovely meditation on these themes that I recommend reading.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!