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Terri Schlichenmeyer: ‘We’ll Be the Last Ones…’ won’t be a letdown

When anybody wants the real story, you’ve got it.

Yep, you’ve got your ear to the ground and that scanner you bought. Or maybe you’ve got good connections to bring you the juiciest gossip, scandals and troubles, births and moves, and the real dirt on who’s died and why.

However it happens, you’ve got the scuttlebutt and you never disappoint your audience — although, once you’ve read “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down” by Rachael Hanel, you’ll hope it’s a friend with your final scoop.

If you lived in Waseca County, Minnesota a couple decades ago, you may have known Paul “Digger O’Dell” Hager. If someone you loved died in Waseca County, you surely knew him because he “made a living from people’s inability to keep on living,” says his daughter.

Digger made graves for “farmers and accountants, teachers and mechanics, teenagers and parents, babies and grandparents.”

For Rachael Hanel, being the grave digger’s daughter was just like being anybody’s kid – with a twist. She grew up riding her bike along cemetery roads, mowing graveyard lawns, and playing among tombstones.

Her imagination took her, not to magical places but to a time when the dead were alive. Hanel envisioned life for her great-grandparents, both victims of influenza. She wondered how her grandmother, who bore sixteen children, coped with the losses of her two baby daughters. Knowing too much about death, Hanel obsessed about it.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” she says, “and my village was the graveyard.” 

Still, hers was not a macabre childhood. In small prairie towns like Waseca, everybody tends to know everybody else and, chances are, they’re also related. Hanel was drawn to her grandfather like a magnet. She spent summers playing with cousins.

The small church she attended was filled with family, and nearby farms were worked by relatives, just as her father worked in “his” cemetery.

Just as he eventually was laid there to rest.

At first blush, “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down” seemed to me to be an odd little collection of “so what” anecdotes. Most readers won’t know many (if any) of the people that author Rachael Hanel writes about. Most readers won’t care which highway borders whose farm.

But watch: Hanel’s words sneak up and poke us. Quiet stories of neighbors and friends cause little gasps when she abruptly reveals why she’s telling us about them. She sets up possibilities and hits us with realities – which is never clearer than in her chapter about the summer she was just 15. There, Hanel offers her memories like broken toys, asking us to somehow make order of what happened, as if she’s indignant and wants us to feel the senseless outrageousness of it all.

And right there is where this book and its stories about small towns, neighbors, family, life and death, make sense. It’s where I fell in love with it and I think you will, too, because “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down”… ultimately won’t.

Article written by Terri Schlichenmeyer