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Other Anna: A Novel


Three generations of women fall prey to the ecstasy and danger of desire.

Anna Berter is a teenager growing up in a privileged home in Iowa just before World War I. Anna's life is dominated by two women: her stern mother and her adoring Scottish housekeeper, "the Old One," who fills Anna's imagination with Celtic legends and songs. But Anna's years of idyllic innocence end with the arrival of Hailus Tucker, a houseguest who charms all the ladies and leaves one—the housekeeper's...

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Three generations of women fall prey to the ecstasy and danger of desire.

Anna Berter is a teenager growing up in a privileged home in Iowa just before World War I. Anna's life is dominated by two women: her stern mother and her adoring Scottish housekeeper, "the Old One," who fills Anna's imagination with Celtic legends and songs. But Anna's years of idyllic innocence end with the arrival of Hailus Tucker, a houseguest who charms all the ladies and leaves one—the housekeeper's granddaughter, Edwina—pregnant. When Anna's family adopts the illegitimate child, Anna demands the truth about the child's father. Truth ultimately brings tragedy for Edwina and reveals long-kept secrets about Anna's own origins. The Old One's mythic visions help Anna discover herself and push her, breathless, into womanhood.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her promising debut, Esstman explores the social mores of early-20th-century Iowa in a sensitively depicted but occasionally maudlin tale. Twelve-year-old narrator Anna Berter defies her prim, socialite mother (``the Prussian'') by spending time with a wise housekeeper she dubs ``the Old One'' and the housekeeper's granddaughter Edwina. This contentment ends when Edwina becomes pregnant by the Berters' caddish houseguest. Anna's parents adopt the child but banish its mother from their house. Subsequently, Edwina's longing for her daughter drives her insane, the Old One curses the Berters' selfishness, and Anna blames her parents for the tragedy. Despite its strong, plausible theme of adoption gone awry, the novel has an arch and stilted tone which, while it conveys Anna's immaturity, burdens the story. After a strong beginning that condemns the stigmatization of unwed mothers, the work grows ponderously melodramatic, especially as Esstman offers needlessly convoluted revelations about Anna's own adoption. ( Apr. )
Library Journal
In this intense, lyric coming-of-age story, Anna Berter, the privileged daughter of the local doctor and his patrician wife in post-World War I rural Iowa, loses her innocence and discovers the power of the truth. Anna is pulled in one direction by her domineering mother, whose life is based on her childlessness and her fear of losing her adopted daughter's love, and in another by the Old One--their housekeeper--who shows Anna the strength of love and its responsibilities. Edwina, the housekeeper's granddaughter, is seduced by a charming but irresponsible houseguest of the Berters. When the Berters adopt Edwina's daughter, giving Anna a new sister, they set in motion a complicated and unnerving confrontation with small-town duplicity and hypocrisy. This first novel is recommended for literary collections and larger fiction collections.-- Linda L. Rome, Middlefield P.L., Ohio
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060977672
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/2/1999
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Esstman lives in Oakton, Virginia. Hallmark Hall of Fame has made into television movies both this book (under the title Secrets) and her second book, Night Ride Home. Esstman has received the Redbook fiction award, nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the Library of Virginia Fiction Award, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Iowa, 1910

My parents and I lived in New Marango, Iowa, halfway between Storm and Spirit lakes, just east of the Little Sioux River. We lived in a big house where my father also had his medical office, two blocks from the private girls' academy where I attended school. My mother was beautiful, and our housekeepers, the Old One and Edwina, were my friends.

This was my nursery life until the summer I was twelve and Hailus Tucker came to stay. His coming marked the beginning of knowing, even of what I didn't want to know.

He was the son of a woman Mother had gone to boarding school with, and he planned to live with us until Christmas. Mother said he came for a rest, but the Old One told me she'd overheard my parents say that he'd had trouble he hoped wouldn't follow him to Iowa.

The week before he came was filled with extra cooking and cleaning. On the day he was to arrive, Mother, not Edwina, woke me. She stood holding a bundle of fresh sheets, though this was not the regular day to change linens. Her hair was neatly coiled, a blue and white apron tied over her dress.

"You have just enough time to get ready," she said. A pulse point throbbed under the lace collar hooked tightly around her throat. "We're late."

Then she disappeared into the hall. From downstairs came the smell of sausage, the soft clink of dishes and skillets ringing against the range. Across the street, the neighbor's dog yapped at the iceman.

I looked sleepily at the room as it was reflected in the mirror carved with dark scrolls of wood, at the green drapes and the wallpaper that at one moment appeared to be endlessly curling vines and in thenext seemed to be a wall of faces, all with their tongues stuck out. It was too early to be late.

Then my mother returned, carrying my Sunday dress, though it was only Tuesday. "Get up now, Anna," she told me. She waited with her back turned while I put it on, and then with sharp precision she did up the long row of hooks and buttons down the back. "Tell your father it's time to eat. Please do that for me."

I passed Edwina, carrying a mop and bucket up the stairs. She pushed a lock of red hair off her forehead and made a face. "Your mother's making me clean behind and under the furniture, as if that young man will get down on his knees to inspect. She'll make us all crazy, she will. "

She trudged up, banging the mop against the bucket more than was necessary, and I slipped into my father's office. Even he seemed unusually busy for so early in the day, glancing up from the records and files spread out all over his desk. "Good morning, Schatzie," he said.

I settled in the crook of his arm and pressed my face against his neck, his man smell mixed with lime toilet water and his beard pleasantly rough against my skin.

"We must be quick before the eggs get cold and your mother scolds us."

So we straightened the desk, and as we walked together down the hall to the dining room, he told me about the new baby he'd delivered the night before. How tiny and wrinkled she was, how she squalled in anger at being disturbed from the quiet sea of her womb.

"This baby had a caul." He sat down at the table. "Red hair and a caul." He shook out his napkin.

"A what?"

"A cap of membrane on her head. Like a hat of skin.

When I told Mrs. Selchie about it this morning, she said she'd seen only half a dozen in all her years of midwifing, but it means the child will be lucky and 'have the sight,' as she puts it. That means she'll have the ability to know more than the rest of us, to see what others miss. She said Edwina was born with a caul."

"That proves it's a foolish Scots superstition," my mother said, coming out of the kitchen to set a toast rack on the table, her white skirts flying. "Edwina can't see the dust she's to clean, let alone the furniture."

"Edwina said if you stand in front of a mirror at midnight on Midsummer's Eve, the face of your true love will appear behind you," I said. "But you can't turn around, or you'll both be cursed and terrible things will befall you. "

"Edwina is telling you fairy tales. She no more can see a face than you can turn into a fish." Mother brushed invisible crumbs from the cloth with the back of her hand.

"There's no harm in folktales, Etta. They can't hurt the child. "

"As long as she realizes they are untrue."

"Did I have a caul when I was born?"

"I don't think so," my father said.

"But weren't you there?"

"It makes no difference whether he was or wasn't, or you did or didn't," Mother interrupted. "There's nothing to see but what's directly before you "

What was before me was a cup, a spoon, and my father's hand beside mine on the cloth, my mother like a queen at the head of the table, and the sun beyond the windows so bright the air shimmered like water.

"Serve the plates, Will," she said and returned to the kitchen. My father and I watched the door swing until it ran out of momentum.

"Can the baby really see that way, with the sight?"

"Babies can't see much of anything, Schatzie."

Mother carried in the claw-footed coffeepot and set it on the silver trivet. Father said grace and then went on about the new baby's delivery for so long that finally Mother set her knife across the edge of her plate with a click…







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