I DON'T READ a lot of novels about the Great Plains, because I have lived in the midwest my whole life, and though I am happy to be here, living and working on the Great Plains more than satisfies my daily adult requirement for Great-Plains-ness. I would much sooner pick up a novel set in the Hapsburg Empire at the turn of the 20th century, or Paris at the time of Louis Philippe, or Chile in the 1970s than I would one about my neighbors and me, with our long low horizons, old grudges, and taciturnity. It suits me fine as a place to live--I'm just not keen to read about it.
I am prepared to make the occasional exception, however--Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf--so I was good to go when the book club my spouse and I belong to chose Haven's Wake.
The Haven of the title is Haven Grebel, a farmer of the present day in Seward County, Nebraska--Mennonite, husband, father, grandfather, much respected in the community. The book is set in the days following his accidental death. The narration moves among three points of view: that of Elsa, Haven's widow; that of Jonathan, younger son, now of Boston, a successful lighting designer, estranged from the family's religion and way of life; and that of Anna June, Haven's granddaughter, youngest daughter of older-son-who-never-got-it-together and possibly bi-polar Jeffrey, ten or eleven years old, artist and visionary.
Haven's death has brought the whole family back together for his funeral; old tensions pull tight, old wounds ache again, long-kept secrets emerge. The main characters are distinct and realistic, but simultaneously seem to be fulfilling archetypal roles: Jonathan as Prodigal Son, Jonathan and Jeffrey as Cain and Abel, Elsa the grimly tenacious matriarch, Anna June a kind of mystic.
One way of sorting the characters is by their relation to the family's faith. Elsa is a by-the-letter enforcer, even resorting to the (generally abandoned) traditional Mennonite sanction of "shunning" Anna June to make her surrender the index cards on which she has been recording various awkward episodes in the lives of the local Mennonite congregation.
Jonathan has outright rejected the faith, but this has left him feeling incomplete and disconnected, as in the old Senegalese proverb at the heart of Mariama Bâ's Scarlet Song: "When one abandons one's own hill, the next hill that one climbs crumbles."
Anna June is not only an historian, but also an artist: she has been executing (with Haven's indispensable help) a series of baked-clay statues of angels around the edge of a pond on the farm. This would not be okay with Elsa--graven images, etc. Jonathan's wife Nina takes it as evidence that they need to get Anna June away from the benighted influence of rural Nebraskan fundamentalists and get her to an art school.
Only her now-dead grandfather understood that Anna June is making her faith visible in her interactions with the world, trying to live in, be in, and possibly move the world by living in the light of her faith. With Haven gone, who will understand this? It will take a lot, I suspect, to get Elsa, or Jonathan, or anyone else in the novel to reach this sort of realization. But the novel leaves us with a least a tablespoon of hope that it is not impossible.
I do have a complaint, though. Occasionally I felt the author was over-explaining. Here is Jonathan in his father's barn:
In the barn Jonathan always felt the same feelings of reverence he experienced in the great cathedrals of Europe. He hadn't been a believer for almost half a century, but every time he entered that space he felt an irrational urge to pray.
The image of the cathedral gets a lot done, suggesting the height of the ceiling, the fall of the light, the sensation of a place hallowed by work and hope. The references to reverence and prayer feel like unnecessary underlining to me. This happens a few other times--but generally this is a pretty darned good novel, as we say here in the midwest. Anyone who likes Marilynne Robinson, especially Robinson's capacity for getting into the depths of relatively inarticulate and overlooked lives, will like Haven's Wake.