By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
MADISON LAKE — Rachael Hanel’s time has come.
After more than a decade of literary labor, the Madison Lake writer’s long-awaited memoir “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down” hits bookshelves everywhere in April.
With her first public reading already behind her — Wednesday at North Hennepin Community College — Hanel will continue taking her debut publication across the state in the coming weeks.
Though the month-long publicity tour is just the beginning, she said the moment feels like a culmination.
“I’ve spent all this time waiting for it,” said Hanel, who wrote the first section of what would later become a memoir about her upbringing as the youngest child of Waseca’s best-known gravedigger in a college writing class in 2000. As she continued to craft her story from an irresolute historical and cultural exploration into its more purposeful present form, Hanel sought constant feedback from editors and writing peers. Even after a series of rejection letters, she persisted through several revisions before attracting the University of Minnesota Press as a publisher in 2012.
“It finally feels settled,” she said.
But don’t expect prurient detail or salacious gossip from Hanel’s memoir.
Rather, the author characterizes her story as a slice of bygone life. With the often uplifting, sometimes surprising and occasionally heart-breaking impacts of her family’s cemetery existence tenderly reflected in thoughtful, polished prose, “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down” is marked by none of the celebrity- and tabloid-driven narratives that dominate the memoir marketplace.
Instead (to borrow some of the imagery Hanel employs in her book), she uncovers meaning through the common undulations of life, just as the gentle movements of earth and time periodically reveal fieldstones, remnants of long-dormant glacial movement so common in our prairie soil:
“Soil expands and contracts, freezes, thaws, cracks, rises, sinks, and worms move through the dirt, paving the way for water and air to flow through and shift the soil. It happens so slowly that we cannot feel it. We don’t notice the change until a giant rock emerges and breaks the plow.”
Hanel encountered many of these metaphoric fieldstones in the graveyards she explored at the side of her father, a man who styled himself Digger O’Dell and approached his grisly labors with a certain cheerful and philosophical zest.
At Woodville Cemetery, she encountered Vicki Mittelstaedt, a young girl whose gravestone locket held a picture that enthralled Hanel’s young imagination.
Elsewhere, she encountered the Rux family who died in a tornado, Sheriff Don Eustice who was gunned down on the job, a pretty young waitress who died in a house fire with her young daughter, and the wife and six children of Jim Zimmerman who all died in the same car during a horrible accident with a train.
In her family’s photo albums and scrapbooks, she discovered that her father’s mother, Anna Hager, buried two infant daughters that succumbed to whooping cough within months of each other. She finds that her mother’s father, Greg Zimny, was just 7 years old in 1918 when the Spanish flu pandemic killed his mother, father and infant sibling.
Finding herself always drawn to the stories she gathered from graveyards, Hanel said it’s apparent now that she was staving off the isolation that already existed naturally in stoic Midwestern families, and was only exacerbated when her father died suddenly from a vicious cancer.
“Growing up with that and having these stories around me made me feel not alone,” Hanel said. “Like I was saving them all for a reason.”
That’s not to say Hanel’s upbringing wasn’t a loving one. Her father was good-natured and available to his youngest daughter that craved his attention. Her mother was an encouraging sort, an avid reader who supported Hanel’s interests and indulged her curiosity.
Yet, Hanel remembers only one time she hugged her father. And on the day her father died, his void left an unspoken yet undeniable fracture in the family’s bond.
“I think a lot of problems can stem from feelings of isolation,” Hanel said. “But I never felt that way because I had all these stories.”
Now, on the cusp of sharing her stories with the world, Hanel said she feels ready.
Though her background in journalism (she is a former Free Press employee and occasional columnist for Mankato Magazine) and naturally reserved demeanor made her initially skeptical to write a memoir, Hanel said she’s comfortable with the combination of local history, cultural observation and personal insight she’s shared.
After all, she always knew she had stories to tell.
“It feels good to me to be at this point,” she said. “There have been a lot of different turning points in the creation of it. ... If a story needs to get out, it will get out. I’m not sure I really had a choice.”