March 2009

Erica Wetter


A Sandhills Ballad by Ladette Randolph

A Sandhills Ballad is a quiet book, but it’s one that drills down into you and resonates emotionally. Its story is centered around twenty-one-year-old Mary Rasmussen, the daughter of a rancher just outside Custer City, Nebraska, whose life comes apart after she loses her husband, Brian, in a car accident that also leaves her disabled. The accident wasn’t her fault -- a truck-driver who’d fallen asleep at the wheel was to blame -- but she was in the driver’s seat, and the blow of having to give up her two great loves, Brian and ranching, shatters her very core. Though she initially takes a stab at trying to regain her old life, training herself to ride horses with a prosthetic leg, she comes to believe she has no future on the ranch. When a conservative local preacher, Ward, begins to woo her through religious tracts and a baptismal promise of starting anew, she surprises everyone, including herself, by entering into a loveless marriage with him only a year after the accident. 

Mary had always thought of herself as having good instincts, but becoming Ward’s “helpmeet” is clearly the wrong choice, and soon after the consecration of their union, she realizes her mistake. In fact, the most dominant memory of her honeymoon is the slowly shifting hands on the face of a clock in the couple’s cheap “honeymoon suite” in Colorado. Naturally, life as a preacher’s wife is an awkward fit for an independent-minded, former ranch-hand like Mary, and the church congregation, resentful that Ward didn’t a take a wife from their ranks and shocked by Mary’s apparent lack of devotion to God, only aggravate the situation. And yet, maddeningly for the reader, she still does nothing to change course, which has the surprising effect of making the story all the more compelling.

Stripped of the future she once envisioned for herself, Mary relinquishes all control over her life. It’s hard to respect her as she commits herself to a life that appears to promise only misery, and yet Mary’s determination to move on from the past, as well as her detachment from those around her, reveal her to be so embroiled in avoiding the pain of the accident that it’s also impossible to judge her for basically giving up her volition. Mary seems to accept the emptiness of her new life, and yet from an outside perspective it’s wrenching to contrast her miserable existence as a preacher’s wife with her former life with Brian on the ranch.

Although she’s unhappy, Mary carves out space for herself in small ways: she finds solace playing crazed and inspired music on the church organ, with the help of a local man she transforms the neglected parsonage yard into a retreat of flowers and greenery, and she begins working at the local nursing home, bonding with a no-nonsense, sassy nurse named Claire. Shockingly, years pass and Mary remains married to Ward -- despite the disapproval of her family, and despite his increasingly zealous work for an organization fighting the air pollution from a local factory farm, owned by Brian’s brothers. Mary, with her post-accident detachment, stays largely out of the fray until an incident with Claire forces her to move outside her comfort zone. Predictably, this one small, transgressive act sets off a chain reaction that spirals throughout the rest of the story for an ending that’s not necessarily surprising (and somewhat contrived in the speed with which it occurs), but satisfying.

Randolph perfectly captures the torpor that takes hold of Mary, and watching her wonder about God and the strange course her life takes after the accident is captivating in its authenticity. You can’t help but root for her to reclaim her instincts and get back on track. The book will no doubt attract attention for its regional focus, and Randolph does write movingly of the land, but in the end, Mary’s struggles aren’t unique to any one place.

A Sandhills Ballad by Ladette Randolph
University of New Mexico Press
ISBN: 978-0-8263-4685-8
320 pages