Review by Amber Peckham
When Ladette Randolph and her husband Noel bought a dilapidated farmhouse outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in October of 2001, just after the traumatic events on 9/11, she didn’t know it would lead to a memoir. She didn’t even know if it would lead to a home. The house had potential, but needed to be gutted to achieve it, and Noel and Ladette had decided to undertake the project on their own under an insanely tight time frame to satisfy the bank. Ladette’s commitment to the rehab was, as she admits early in Leaving the Pink House: A Memoir (University of Iowa Press; Sept. 2014), tentative at best, more to appease her husband’s longing for the rural life than due to dissatisfaction with their current home, which she calls “the pink house.” This disconnect between Randolph’s love for her home and her decision to leave it is one of the tensions which drives this moving memoir.
The dramas and difficulties of the farmhouse rehab are relayed to the reader in detailed interludes which occur between longer, lyrical chapters that chronicle the many homes Randolph has made, for better or worse, during her refreshingly relatable life. We see her as a child in Nebraska, navigating her family’s religious rigidity and trying to reconcile it with her own blossoming writer’s imagination. We watch them move from town to town, chasing contentment. And we watch Randolph’s idea of home change as she comes into womanhood already a widow. “You pine for what you once had,” she writes, “and find in its absence a singular pain.” We fear that this absence, this pain, will define the dreaded move to the farmhouse which is the undercurrent connecting the text. As the narrative proceeds, the interludes closer to the present offer Randolph the opportunity to reassure the reader of her harmony with her past, thereby also assuring us that the move will go well. “There is a happy ending, there really is,” she states near the middle of the work, after relaying the tragedy of her first husband’s death. “Time passes. We endure.”
This theme of endurance is also present in the history of Randolph’s family, which she shares throughout the book. Tales of her tough-as-nails grandmother, her intrepid mother, and her inflexible-yet-dependable father show us with candor and beauty the individuals who first made houses into homes (or their imitations) for Randolph, and help us see how that foundational experience informed her notions of security, place, and self into adulthood. Such illustration also invites the reader to reflect on their own history and the origin of their definition of belonging.
Randolph’s careful chronology is powerful and well balanced, but it is carried by her lucid descriptions of landscapes and her own self-awareness. “We were all but annihilated under the burden of the sky,” she writes of her childhood home in Custer County, Nebraska. “We were always aware of our place there, our miniscule lives…The grand questions of life seemed absurd beneath that endless, obliterating sky. Who would have listened if we’d spoken? Our voices didn’t return to us but went on and on.” It’s watching Randolph discover the untruth of these early impressions of powerlessness and silence that makes this memoir a truly moving read.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars.
Who would enjoy this book:
A great read for lifelong nomads (or nomads at heart) and anyone seeking to examine the complex notion of “home” in today’s world.