Ladette Randolph. A Sandhills Ballad. University of New Mexico Press.


It might be easy when describing Ladette Randolph’s first novel, A Sandhills Ballad, to slip into a summary that sounds a little melodramatic. There is death, dismemberment, and divorce. There is rage and despair, determination and triumph, and ultimately (thankfully) a measure of contentment. The plot is, to say the very least, full. But because A Sandhills Balladis set in the ranchlands of western Nebraska, where Randolph shows that clear-eyed acceptance of life’s challenges is not only expected but essential, where rage and despair and triumph all are fine and good as long as they’re managed with quiet stoicism and the slightest measure of wry humor, this novel is as simple and lovely as the rich blue of a cloudless Nebraska summer sky.

At the novel’s center is Mary Rasmussen, a young woman who grows up on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills knowing—unlike her high school girlfriends who escape to the university—that she never wants to leave. Mary loves everything about the ranch—the hard physical labor, the challenge of evaluating and marketing livestock, and the unyielding nature of both the life and the land itself. Because Mary has never envisioned any other future for herself, she is thrown into a downward spiral when in one fell swoop she loses both her young rancher husband and her physical capability to perform the hard labor she thinks is required for such a life.

The choices Mary makes after this great disappointment—especially her decision to enter into a loveless marriage with a domineering, conservative preacher—would be difficult to fathom but for the way Randolph allows us into Mary’s head. Randolph shows Mary as neither foolhardy nor self-pitying, but instead as someone who wishes to avoid being a burden, however poorly that decision turns out. And while Mary is often accommodating in this difficult life she’s chosen—putting up with the small-minded preacher and the demanding flock that he leads—she is hardly passive. Mary is careful in the words she chooses and the actions she takes, but more often Randolph shows that, like many of the characters in A Sandhills Ballad, Mary reveals her strength without saying a word. There are certainly loudmouths in the book—Mary’s preacher husband Ward and her fair-weathered and high-spirited friend Claire—but more often Mary’s power, like that of her family’s, is almost entirely nonverbal. We only know how characters feel thanks to a shake of a head, a touch of a hand, a pound of the piano keys, or the presence of a newly pressed shirt—all interpreted and understood in great depth by Mary Rasmussen, this intuitive and sharp-eyed main character.

Randolph’s talent is in describing with great poignancy these stoic and silent people who are uncomfortable with grand displays of emotion or confrontation, and in showing how they are able to communicate with great efficiency their displeasure with one another, or their love or pride or concern. When Mary begins to wake from her sad and self-imposed penance—when she begins to speak up rather than contain her thoughts, as she comes to believe she can have another chance at happiness—A Sandhills Ballad erupts.

But Randolph’s eloquence extends beyond Mary and the challenges she overcomes. Randolph’s descriptions of the land, as seen through Mary’s eyes, and her descriptions of life on the ranch, also take on a character of their own. There is such love for this demanding land and for the people who live there undaunted that Randolph’s novel is as much a song to place as it is to the tenor of the people who live there.