"I grew up in cemeteries," begins Rachael Hanel in We'll be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter. "Cemeteries fed my imagination, and looking back, they even gave birth to it." In this book, which drew me and would not let go, Hanel's imagination and memory take us on a journey through not only her past and present, but the past and present of the place and people around her, creating a world that feels both ephemeral and real at the same time. Every time I opened the book, I did not know which world I would enter and the anticipation of surprise kept me reaching for the book again and again.
Books and cemeteries filled Hanel's childhood and both tell the story that unfolds. "Books and gravestones are composed of not only mere letters... A reader needs to come along and make meaning from it. From a distance, our tombstones, too, function as mere ornamentation, escaping notice as we drive quickly past cemetery gates. But come close, stop, really read, and the stories will speak to you."
Hanel listened to those stories and those of her parents, including her parents' philosophies of life and death. Hanel's father wonders "...if maybe the spirit dissolves into a million pieces and descends gently onto everything in the world like a fine dust, that everything in the world holds an invisible layer of people who have died. Or maybe the spirit breaks into just enough pieces to stick to the places and people it loved most."
After reading this book, I tend to believe in the latter, that the spirit sticks to the people and places most loved, as her father's spirit certainly has stayed with Hanel. Love, insight, and yearning ground each story woven seamlessly together into the whole of this book. Tragedy and joy dip and spin alongside each other, step forward and ease back. The unexpected death of her father when Hanel was in her teens brought her childhood among graves new meaning—and a lifetime of questions.
What lifts We'll be the Last Ones to Let you Down into the realm of exceptional memoirs is Hanel's attention to exquisite detail and her willingness to include what happens to those left standing around the grave after the burial, the survivors left to carry on and compose their lives and the myriad ways this is done. This is a gallant, haunting story, written with heart and courageous honesty. Hanel shares deep insights and poses questions worthy of a lifetime of wondering.
An extraordinary read.
Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children. We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter is her first book for adults. Visit her website.
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