Two-year-old Ursula, half Finnish and half Chinese, falls into an abandoned mine shaft during a family vacation in Michigan. Emergency crews set up rescue operations; media cameras and reporters move in; gawkers start parking their RVs and station wagons along the perimeter. One snarling bystander (with a role more significant than a first glance reveals) wants to know: “why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?” The answer, taking shape in the distraught mother’s mind though she is unaware the question is being articulated, is: “so many generations, back into history and then prehistory, all concentrated into this one little girl.” She is thinking this because, two years after her daughter’s birth, Annie is still in awe of Ursula’s very existence; an accident when Annie was ten shattered her pelvis, leaving her with a slim chance of ever having a successful pregnancy. But her miracle baby arrived, and lying near the hole that might now be that baby’s grave, Annie realizes that “the birth of any of us, our coming to birth at all, in light of all the hazards every ancestor faced, is pretty much a miracle.”
Thus is the theme of the expansive, intricate, and tender novel Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill, one of the fiction selections from my Festival of Faith & Writing reading list (see this previous post). Hill takes the reader back more than 2000 years and then leapfrogs forward through the centuries to explore the personal histories of a handful of Ursula’s ancestors: a third-century B.C. Chinese alchemist; the deaf daughter of a merchant in fourth-century Finland; a sunny orphan raised in, and despised by, the Swedish court; and a seventeenth-century French Jesuit missionary. This sweeping global drama intimately reported by an omniscient narrator is “a divine view of a family tree,” as one reviewer aptly summarizes.
Ursula, Under reads like a Russian novel in that no character is minor. Eventually we get into nearly every character’s head, intimately acquainting us with Ursula’s ancestral line through the private struggles, successes, and losses known only to us, the readers, as each character dies and fades into the invisible realm of the past. And so we uncover the threads of tenacious personality traits and ironies of place and time that connect across the centuries, leaving us with an appreciative view of the richly detailed tapestry that neither Ursula nor any of her forebears would recognize as their own heritage. The depth and breadth of Hill’s approach flies in the face of the modern fiction preference of close first-person point-of-view over the omniscient third-person so popular in the last century, and this is deliberate. At one of her Festival sessions, Hill noted that she considers such expansiveness the true novel form and views most modern novels as short stories in the wrong packaging. (She has published a number of stories.) Pick up this novel and you’ll understand exactly what she means. Though I read a lot of good novels, the writer in me found it refreshing to experience the work of someone who takes the form at least as seriously as the content.
And this is a novel you read with a dictionary. Hill has a tremendous vocabulary, and like her attention to form, every word is a deliberate choice, evoking exactly the smells, sounds, and sensibilities of each landscape and era. Readers who thumb through a thesaurus for the fun of it will absolutely delight in her use of language.
I normally take quite a few notes as I read. In this case, I was so caught up in the narrative sweep that I marked only a few passages. But one thing that intrigued me throughout was how Hill portrays women. A good number of Ursula’s female ancestors are “defective,” that is, marked by physical or social stigmas that set them outside their communities. Annie, for example, was left disfigured and with a severe limp by her childhood accident, much like her husband’s ancestor Ming Tao; Kyllikki is deaf; Violeta is a foundling and therefore bereft of the social benefits of proper parentage. Yet it is exactly these circumstances relegating them to the fringes of society that free these women from the burdens or bondages to which their gender would have bound them in those societies. This seems to offer some hope that Ursula, with her low-income, mixed heritage and potentially tragic accident at such an early age, might in fact survive and go on to outshine her well-heeled racist naysayers. (But if Hill is a feminist, she is an atypical one. Did I mention she has 12 kids? Yes, a dozen of them, plus a Ph.D. in English. Having met her, it was immediately clear she doesn’t fit anyone’s labels.)
She portrays a lot of suffering, certainly on the part of the women mentioned above, but also on the part of a number of the male characters. There is a sense of the inevitability of extreme hardship in all eras of human existence. Yet Hill shows that light can be born from the darkest of circumstances, that it is sometimes possible for human beings to throw off the fetters of fear and hatred and ignorance and make their lives gifts to others. And so, though many of the characters face the most difficult situations possible, the overall trajectory is one of blessing and hope.
If you’re in a book club that welcomes intellectual novels, consider this a recommendation. Any number of interesting themes could be highlighted, and the Penguin paperback includes some really great discussion questions, as well as an eye-opening interview with the author.
Finally, I have to mention the personal connection I stumbled upon, that of Ursula’s Grandma Mindy! The ring of that name is, in fact, how I got mine, as my dad tested all of his kids’ potential names for their future compatibility with “Grandma” or “Grandpa” (yeah, he’s a bit unorthodox). So a book that uses that exact construct has to be good, right?