The Bookworm: Before-social-media connections

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“We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down”

By Rachael Hanel

c. 2013, University of Minnesota Press

$17.95/$18.50 Canada

196 pages

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 16 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.

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“Serving Victoria ” by Kate Hubbard

c. 2013, Harper

$29.99/$31.99 Canada

432 pages

Happily ever after.

That’s how things go at the end of a fairy tale. The handsome prince weds the beautiful princess, dragons are slain, wicked witches become dust, peasants rejoice, and they all live well, you know what comes next.

But maybe you’re wrong. Maybe scandal comes next, or war, disease, death. Only the servants know for sure, and in the new book “Serving Victoria ” by Kate Hubbard, they were quite willing to tell.

When Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of England in 1837, she inherited a court filled with impropriety, which scandalized the young woman. Though she ultimately retained some of her uncle’s court, she needed to appoint her own ladies-in-waiting, maids-of-honour, nursery attendants, physicians, and other personal staff. Members of her court were required to have a sense of duty, discretion, and high morals. Most of them would come from British aristocracy.

While writing a children’s book on the Queen, Kate Hubbard came across collections of letters and diaries written by various members of Victoria’s entourage penned notes that detailed life inside the Monarchy, including daily drudgery and isolation. Hubbard also found gossip that gives modern Anglophiles an intimate peek at the Queen, her husband, uncles, and other members of the Royal Family.

Working for the Queen seems like it would be an honor but it was, in truth, dull and dreary: evenings, for instance, consisted of stiff dinner conversation followed by two hours of small talk. The Queen was said to be somewhat immature and loud, often “showing her gums.” More than one blue-blooded Palace employee thought that Victoria and Albert were the 19th-century equivalents of trailer trash.

Still, despite mind-numbing duties, Palace life wasn’t horrid.

Queen Victoria never became friends with her female attendants, but she became “close” to some of them and was a generous gift-giver. Though the Queen notoriously kept drawing rooms and bedrooms at 40 degrees F or less, court members were well-fed and safely sheltered. They also got decent (for the time) salaries.

Yes, there were scandals within the Monarchy. There were births and deaths (it was said that the Queen was never happier than when planning a funeral). There were romances, public and imagined. And there were fights, inside both the British Empire and the Palace walls.

So you’re hooked on a show about a certain Abbey? You’re a rabid Anglophile, long live the Queen? Then I’m sure you’re already itching for “Serving Victoria.”

And for good reason: the Victoria Age comes alive with author Kate Hubbard’s findings, taking us behind brocaded curtains and inside bedchambers to learn delicious tidbits about a woman who’s been dead more than a century, but still remains fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed how Hubbard lays down a cheeky, gossipy tone; she’s chatty, but without offending the sensibilities of historians, who will likewise relish this semi-biographical narrative.

Monarch watchers will also like this book, as will British subjects, or anyone who’s interested in or wishes they’d experienced late-Victorian or early-Edwardian life. If that’s you, then “Serving Victoria” is a book you’ll devour, quite happily.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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