Pondered in Her Heart by Elaine Rich is a novel about Hannah’s thoughtful search for meaning in her life. Living in a retirement home, Hannah Herschberger reviews her life by writing about it and
remembering experiences I play in my brain like old memory tapes.
We first met Hannah Elizabeth as an 11-year-old in a book written earlier by Rich. Hannah Elizabeth loved the sound of words and wanted to be a poet. She lived in an Amish community in Indiana, where church, family, and school were a united influence. She mirrors this by thinking of Bible verses and hymns appropriate for the occasion and reciting them to herself.
Grown-up Hannah Herschberger, too, recalls scripture and hymns and frequently recites them to herself. She still holds up the unfulfilled dream of becoming a writer, although she is careful to keep that secret.
Now 76 years old and a college graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Hannah has come a long way from her sheltered childhood. Living at Shalom Home means adapting to a new way of life and represents a last challenge.
The restrictions placed on residents at Shalom are not to Hannah’s liking, but the many free hours denied to her as a busy mother and now available give her pleasure. This journal-autobiography helps her sort out her feelings. As time passes, Hannah finds peace and comfort at the Home.
Wherever I go this community is the place where I get my sense of direction in the universe, she writes.
Among the questions Hannah ponders is how love happens and what makes a marriage. She wonders, too, about the mystery of intercessory prayer and how prayer really works. At the threshold of a new millennium, she feels deep anguish at the tremendous amount of evil in the century in which she has lived.
How shall I cope with evil?
Interspersed in this account of Hannah’s life are some gems of insight. John Wesley Troyer, a resident of Shalom and former pastor, wonders if it’s all right to talk aloud to himself. His career has included a lot of speaking.
Now that his audience has dwindled to one, why should his voice be silent? He gives himself permission.
In another vignette, Hannah refers to times in her younger years when as a woman she had to leave the room when men wanted to have a serious discussion. One time when the New Birth was the topic, she heard a woman say of the patriarchal system in her church,
Some men will have to have their heads reshaped to be born again.
Hannah sometimes wonders,
How much of a lifetime goes into details like grating carrots, answering the telephone, and emptying wastebaskets. . . . Can one empty a wastebasket to the glory of God? Only if the contents are bio-degradable, no doubt.
Reflecting that at Shalom they think more about death than new life or new birth, she asks,
Is death also birth?
In ways more characteristic of the old than the young, Hannah calls a disposition of the dead as the chief priority in life. Next most important was helping women in childbirth, followed by care of babies and children.
Hannah’s peaceful death and the coming of her children to honor her shows this a book affirming life and love.
Switching from past to present makes for some uneven transitions in the book. Young people will not be drawn to the story, but older readers can resonate with Hannah’s ponderings and questions. The book moves slowly in keeping with Hannah’s unhurried findings about her life. It is her
soul searching which is the heart of the book.