Monday, June 1, 2009

"A Sandhills Ballad"

Ladette Randolph is the author of the award-winning short story collection This Is Not the Tropics, and the editor of two anthologies: A Different Plain and The Big Empty. She is editor-in-chief of the literary journal Ploughshares and on the faculty at Emerson College in Boston. Prior to joining the staff at Ploughshares she was an acquiring editor and associate director at University of Nebraska Press, and before that, managing editor of Prairie Schooner. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Rona Jaffe grant, the Virginia Faulkner Award, a Best New American Voices citation and three Nebraska Book Awards.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to her new novel, A Sandhills Ballad, and reported the following:
Excerpt (starting with the paragraph before p 69 and ending with the paragraph after):

“For a few seconds Ward seemed confused as to why she remained seated before he finally understood and bent to lift her into his arms. Her carried her gingerly on his bare feet through the new gramma grass to the muddy, algae-coated edge of the pond. He stepped into the water, slipping slightly as the mud gave way. The water crept up to his knees, and Mary shivered as the water lapped at her foot. Ward hesitated before moving deeper into the pond until the water came to his waist. He stopped and looked at Mary. She expected him to smile at the absurdity of what they were doing, but his face remained somber.

“Mary Needham,” he said then in the same formal voice he had used at the hospital, “do you take Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior?”

She hesitated only a second before blithely answering, “Sure.” She felt a strange urge to laugh but stopped herself.

Ward nodded. “Then upon the confession of your faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” With these words, Ward bent and lowered her beneath the water. She felt his feet slip slightly in the mud again before he steadied himself. Her head went under. The frigid water was a shock as it closed over her. She opened her eyes briefly and saw the sun wavering greenish through the murky water of the pond. Then she was coming up out of the cold and the murk into the full sun, and Ward was wrapping his arms around her. He was laughing as she cleared her nose. Her teeth chattered with the cold. All the while Ward held her tight against his warm chest. He was still laughing as he carried her out of the water. Once he had reached the shore he set her down and swaddled her in his jacket before he squeezed the excess water from her hair.

“We’d better get you home and warm you up,” he said then, still smiling. Through her dripping hair, Mary smiled, too, though she wondered what sort of pact she was making with the future. “I don’t know anything about being a preacher’s wife,” she said.

“Oh,” Ward laughed. “It won’t take you long to catch on to that. Until then we’ll take it one day at a time.”

When they entered the kitchen door later that afternoon, in addition to their disheveled appearance, the change must have been obvious on Ward’s face, for John glanced quickly from Ward to Mary, his sharp-eyed look lingering on Mary a few seconds before he turned away. He’d been watching her closely for months and now he seemed resigned, ready to give up on her. She wished she could tell him about the baptism, her sense that she had a future after all. She wished she could explain to him that it wasn’t how it looked.”

I had no idea what I would find on page 69, but it turns out to be a pivotal moment in the novel. A Sandhills Ballad is the story of a young ranch woman, Mary Rasmussen, who, when we first meet her, has lost the life and work she has loved. She lives in a remote part of the country, in the Sandhills of western Nebraska. At this critical point in her story, she doesn’t see options for her future outside the ranch work she can no longer do. Her family is loving but they don’t know how to help to her. When the only person who seems to be offering her a future turns out to be Ward Hamilton, the local minister-- a man she doesn’t love--she decides it’s the only way she can move forward and not be a burden on her family. Her father, John, is deeply distrustful of the minister and fears the folly of his daughter’s decision. In this scene, Ward has decided Mary needs to be re-baptized after he’s convinced her to marry him. The tone of the marriage is foreshadowed by Mary’s feeling of being submerged into the murky water of the cold pond. The rest of the novel is the story of how she finds her life, and love, again.
Learn more about the book and author at Ladette Randolph's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue