Ursula, Under

( 5 )

Overview

In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a dangerous rescue effort draws the ears and eyes of the entire country. A two-and-a-half-year-old girl has fallen down a mine shaft—"the only sound is an astonished tiny intake of breath from Ursula as she goes down, like a penny into the slot of a bank, disappeared, gone." It is as if all hope for life on the planet is bound up in the rescue of this little girl, the first and only child of a young woman of Finnish extraction and her Chinese-American husband. One TV viewer ...

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Overview

In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a dangerous rescue effort draws the ears and eyes of the entire country. A two-and-a-half-year-old girl has fallen down a mine shaft—"the only sound is an astonished tiny intake of breath from Ursula as she goes down, like a penny into the slot of a bank, disappeared, gone." It is as if all hope for life on the planet is bound up in the rescue of this little girl, the first and only child of a young woman of Finnish extraction and her Chinese-American husband. One TV viewer following the action notes that the Wong family lives in a decrepit mobile home and wonders why all this time and money is being "wasted on that half-breed trailer-trash kid."

In response, the novel takes a breathtaking leap back in time to visit Ursula's most remarkable ancestors: a third-century-B.C. Chinese alchemist; an orphaned playmate of a seventeenth-century Swedish queen; Professor Alabaster Wong, a Chautauqua troupe lecturer (on exotic Chinese topics) traveling the Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century; her great-great-grandfather Jake Maki, who died at twenty-nine in a Michigan iron mine cave-in; and others whose richness and history are contained in the induplicable DNA of just one person—little Ursula Wong.

Ursula's story echoes those of her ancestors, many of whom so narrowly escaped not being born that her very existence—like ours—comes to seem a miracle. Ambitious and accomplished, Ursula, Under is, most of all, wonderfully entertaining—a daring saga of culture, history, and heredity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Hill] astounds with her ability to meld simply and beautifully told stories, stories with an air of fable about them." —The Washington Post Book World

"It’s a divine view of a family tree... Ride along to the end of this merry, generous book." —Time Out New York

"Hill’s stories lure-the characters are vital, clever, detailed, appealing; I wolfed the book down like a bowl of cookie dough." —The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Ursula, Under never ceases to surprise and compel. What a grand and daring book." —Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

Michael Anft
Ursula, Under -- Hill's great big novel -- ditches organizational showiness in favor of a directness that puts all the weight of judgment on stories of ancients and moderns, waifs and royals, the ascetic and the damned. Primarily the tale of Ursula Wong, a 2½-year-old who has fallen down an abandoned mine shaft, the novel shows Hill is up to the formidable task of delivering on her unpretentious modus operandi.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The story of a little girl who falls down an abandoned mineshaft is layered with tales of her ancestors in China, Finland and Michigan in Ingrid Hill's first novel, a jumbled, ambitious effort. Ursula, Under begins when Justin and Annie Wong take their two-year-old daughter, Ursula, on a picnic near an old mine. Her disappearance sets in motion a desperate rescue effort, the account of which is periodically interrupted by Hill's elaborate forays into the past. Unwieldy but inventive, this is a promising debut. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In her remarkably meaty first novel, set in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, Hill blends a present-day drama with epic tales of ancestry. In the main story, tiny Ursula Wong child of a librarian left handicapped by a hit-and-run driver and a Chinese American musician and gutter installer whose father took off when he was a child falls into an abandoned mine shaft. Among the various chapters on her frantic rescue, Hill intersperses perilous heritage tales, which range from second-century China, where we meet an alchemist relative, to eighth-century Finland, where Ursula's great-great-grandfather perishes in a mine cave-in. Hill's mosaic-like telling underlies the impact of Ursula's plight and her parents' anguish, finally leading the reader to an understanding of the unique value of each individual. This should do well in public libraries; warmly recommended. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Hill (Dixie Church Interstate Blues, stories, not reviewed) lards 2,500 years of history and misery onto the 17-hours-and-27-minutes-long drama of a little girl's rescue from a mineshaft. "It is Monday, June 9, 2003," the omniscient narrator informs us. "Our story begins long before, if we believe that all back story is also story, that the underside of the iceberg explains what we see above." You have been warned: connections will be made, moral lessons will be underscored, the small niceties of the well-made novel will be disdained. The author introduces us to an appealing young family-Annie Maki, Justin Wong, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ursula-and sets up a strongly emotional premise as Ursula vanishes down a hole in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Hill then sends us back to China in the 3rd century b.c., beginning a saga that will unfold in 8th-century Finland, 17th-century Canada and Sweden, and 19th-century California, delving into the experiences of the Finnish and Chinese immigrants to America whose blood flows in Ursula's veins, with a few chapters interpolated to remind us she's still underground. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes in its relentless catalogue of disasters and willingness to yank readers away from characters just as they're beginning to engage our interest, the narrative aims to make a political point as women are abused, workers die due to companies' negligence, and rich brat Jinx Muehlenberg hits ten-year-old Annie with her car and speeds away, crippling the girl for life. The fact that Jinx later makes a pass at Justin while he's working on her house is practically the least outlandish coincidence in a story crammed with unlikelyconjunctions. Why does all this madness sometimes work? Because Hill's prose is vivid, if undisciplined, and her passion is ultimately contagious. The cumulative impact of all those ancestors' stories adds an epic grandeur and surprising emotional punch to the finale, when Hill finally deigns to allow us to follow step by step the painstaking effort to bring Ursula out of the shaft. Wildly uneven, awesomely ambitious: a mess, in fact, but you can't help but be impressed by the author's commitment and boldness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143035459
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 625,820
  • Product dimensions: 5.41 (w) x 8.05 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Ingrid Hill is the author of the short story collection Dixie Church Interstate Blues.  She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  She has twelve children, including two sets of twins.  She lives in Iowa City.

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Table of Contents

1. Ursula 1
2. The Alchemist's Last Concubine 15
3. Justin 55
4. The Caravan-Master's Lieutenant 71
5. Annie 111
6. The Minister of Maps 127
7. Justin and Annie 179
8. A Foundling at the Court 223
9. Jinx 267
10. A Wastrel Killed by a Snail 301
11. Mindy Ji and Joe 359
12. The Woman Who Married the Baker's Friend 381
13. Ursula Again 447
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First Chapter

Ursula

On a crystalline, perfectly blue morning in June, after a day of angry pewter skies and of sheeting, driving rain, we enter our story. Clouds pile themselves picturesquely, theatrically, like plump odalisques, against the blue, clear-edged and astonishing. The forest all around is a palette of greens. Wild chokecherry trees are in raucous bloom. It is as if this were the first morning of the world, perfect. Even the garter snakes slithering under roots, over rocks, over roots, through the grass seem a part of the day's jubilance. Dew on fat ferns catches the sunlight in bursts and disperses it, starlike.

We are just miles inland from the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, which juts out into Lake Superior, the arrival point for the earliest hardy wide-eyed settlers arriving from the East on lake packet boats to stake claims and seek copper, well before the Civil War. Lifting off from a branch overhead, a red-winged blackbird calls out clearly something that sounds much like kee'-we-naw, the native word for "portage." Many things here that are not called Keweenaw are called its English equivalent, Portage, almost as if life were much like a brief transit across a wee stretch of land.

It is Monday, June 9, 2003. Our story itself began long before, if we believe that all back story is also story, that the underside of the iceberg explains what we see above: all those wind-sculpted shapes that, looking for all the world like praying hands, came to be called, by fanciful meteorologists, nieves penitentes, or penitents sculpted of snow. Still, a painful and highly unusual event happens this glorious morning, and it is through this tiny aperture that we enter our narrative.

We are at the moment seeing through the eyes of Ursula Wong, a child with dark Asian eyes, café-au-lait complexion, and a thick blond braid down her back that seems frankly too much hair for a two-and-a-half-year-old to have had time to grow. Ursula has had her second birthday on November 19. She is a child small in stature, five pounds nine ounces at birth and now just over twenty-seven pounds, as of her spring checkup. She wears denim bib overalls with a purple T-shirt beneath; in the cool of the morning she has insisted on putting on her purple hooded jacket for the weather. Snow mittens are clipped to the sleeve ends. Yes, they are purple too. It is perfect and cool in the sixties.

Her mother, Annie, says, "Honey, you don't need a coat. It's June." Her father, Justin, says to Annie, "She'll figure it out pretty quick. She'll take it off herself and think it was her own idea."

In a clearing a couple of hundred feet down an untraveled dirt track into the forest, a glade carpeted by short grass kept low by odd gravel-shot soil, Ursula is crouched on her haunches examining tiny white blooms on wild strawberry plants in the grass. Each tiny bloom is a star. Ursula is transfixed.

Ursula and her young parents have traveled almost five hours west and north from their home in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. They have spent the night at a Super 8 Motel in Houghton, a town that houses the state's mining college, now more diversified as mine after mine has shut down. The motel faces Portage Lake, and Justin, who is an installer of vinyl siding and gutters, has paid the five dollars extra for a room with a view of the lake and the opposite shore. They rarely leave home, and this overnight away is a treat.

Ursula has splashed in the pool and run around on the motel's wooden deck, puddled from the day's rain. She has giggled delightedly as with the heel of her hand she pounded buttons in the lobby vending machine to make foil packets of chocolate-chip cookies fall, klunk, to the bottom of the machine. Ursula has suggested in a business-like way that they might live here. Justin has reminded her that Grandma Mindy is back home, and her purple carpet in her bedroom and all her stuffed animals. "Oh," Ursula has said. "That's true." Sober as a church mouse, clear-spoken as a valedictorian.

The Wongs have come here because Annie, a librarian, has gotten a bee in her bonnet of late: she wants to know more about her great-grandfather's death in a 1926 mine collapse, and then more about his life. Seems dumb, she has said, to live so geographically close to it all and know nothing much about our roots.

So the previous fall they had gone to a commemoration of the disaster at the iron mine where her great-grandfather died, and now, several months later, in weather as lovely as Eden's, they have come to search out the site of the copper-mining camp where the family lived when her father's grandfather was a blond barefoot boy new to Michigan, new to America. Her father is foggy about family history, does not remember being told much; he is beer-sodden most of the time anyway.

Annie has spent the previous afternoon in the archives of the Finnish college across the lake, reading accounts of the 1926 tragedy an hour and a half south, in Rovaniemi, Michigan, while Justin and Ursula first nap and then dry-roast in the sauna until they glow. Ursula loves the sauna. She sits with a sober expression, for only a few minutes, nonetheless, and then says perkily, "I'm done," ready to move on to the next thing. She is after all two years old. "I'm not," says Justin lugubriously, peering out at her from under the wet towel draped over his head and then retreating back under. He takes sauna seriously.

So Ursula sits and waits, rolling her eyes in the way she has seen little Olivia do on old Cosby Show reruns, precocious, in charge but obedient. Ursula's swimsuit is purple, like her bedroom carpet and her coat and everything else in which she has a say, and she sits on the hot cedar bench on a small purple towel. She draws the line at the television dinosaur called Barney. "Get outta here," she says, when anyone mentions him, with an exaggerated wave of her tiny hands, dismissive, parodying someone else -- maybe from Brooklyn -- she's seen on TV.

Ursula's even having come to be -- considering Annie's injuries (a fractured pelvis from a hit-and-run accident at age ten which also broke both her legs) and all the doctors' attendant warnings -- is a miracle in everyone's eyes. It has occurred to Annie 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 too, and she has been chewing on this thought for several months.

While Justin and Annie are awed and protective toward Ursula, they also believe that she needs to learn to make choices from early on. So she gets to make choices. She is, as a result, a bright, perky child, astonishing everyone.

That evening, taking Ursula for a final packet of cookies, Justin hears the roar of the crowd on the lobby TV and plunks himself down between a tool salesmen from Ironwood and a grandfather from Escanaba who is en route to see his little granddaughter Ursula's age, in Bay Mills, and has stopped here to visit the shrine of a sainted priest-missionary for his wife, who has cancer. They are all watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. There is a television in the Wongs' room upstairs, of course, but the lure of the lobby and all of these hockey fans is irresistible to Justin. He drops into a chair and starts roaring with the rest of the men.

Out through the glass door of the lobby, in the twilight, the surface of the lake sparkles. Ursula stands waving her silver packet of cookies with a defeated look but also with flashes of a tiny anger. She makes an exasperated face at the desk attendant, as if to say, Men. The attendant laughs heartily. The New Jersey Devils are playing the Anaheim Ducks, and the Devils are on their way to shutting out the Ducks.

Justin does not know that two defensemen, one on each team, playing against each other, are actually related, at not so great a distance back in time, to his wife, Annie, who is here after all seeking out her ancestry, and neither he nor Annie will ever know it. On the Devils, Oleg Tverdovsky, from Donetsk, in Ukraine, is descended from an ancestor who migrated east; on the Ducks, Fredrik Olausson, of Dädesjö, Sweden, has hands shaped like those of Annie's great-grandfather dead in the mine, passed down from a shared great-grandfather of their own. The degrees of separation are considerable -- the connections go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century -- and no one is asking the question, anyway. Justin's high-school team in Sault Sainte Marie was called the Blue Devils, and he is rooting for the Devils.

The lady at the desk has a name tag that says eileen. She looks down at Ursula standing rolling her eyes, waving her packet of Mrs. Fields cookies, waiting for Justin. "Who do you want to win, honey?" she asks.

"Well, who's playing?" says Ursula perkily, her eyebrows lifted.

The attendant is surprised at the response. What did she expect? "The Devils and the Ducks," says Eileen.

"I like ducks," says Ursula. "I hate devils. Devils are ba-a-ad."

The attendant laughs heartily. "They're not real devils," she says.

"I don't care," Ursula says. "I like ducks."

Justin and the tool salesman and the grandfather hear none of this. There is a great deal of roaring from the onscreen crowd as well. Pucks fly, ice shivers up in fine flurries, blood flows. All is adrenaline joy.

The attendant helps Ursula open the cookies and gets her some milk from the breakfast room, checking with Justin first in pantomime. Justin nods yes, but this is after all hockey he's watching: she might have asked him anything and he'd agree.

The Devils win, three-aught. Annie comes down in the elevator, using her cane, looking for them. She and Ursula and Eileen have a good laugh at the hockey fans. "She likes ducks," Eileen says to Annie, reporting the remark. "But she doesn't like devils." Eileen crouches to Ursula's eye height and high-fives her. "Gal after my own heart," she says, slapping palms.

They are driving today to the site of a settlement where Annie's great-grandfather had lived in his childhood, soon after he came over from Finland, the now overgrown location of an abandoned copper-mining community out toward the point.

On their way north from Houghton this morning they have stopped in Calumet to take a couple of pictures of Ursula sitting on the lap of the oversized statue of Alexander Agassiz, Harvard naturalist, copper baron, and aristocrat, otherness incarnate and no friend to the hoi polloi. Still, his sculpted bronze robes are cool, and Ursula poses sitting on his knee as if he were a dear, loving uncle.

The plan is to have a picnic here -- the glade looked inviting, and time is abundant -- and to spend the rest of the day seeking out where the camp would have been. Camp Grit. Its name must surely have been a joke, Annie thinks -- or maybe not? Nature has taken over again at the site of the camp, perseverant, triumphing over all humans' intents. The land had been leveled, entirely, but, the historian at the college has told Annie, the forest has reasserted itself and is as thick as if it were first growth. The cabins will be gone, even the traces of their foundations, he says, as well as all traces of the two churches that came later on, whose bells were transported inland for two other churches, both Lutheran, one Finnish, one Norwegian. Finns and Norwegians did not worship together, even if both were Lutherans.

Perhaps, Annie thinks, all traces of human habitation will be gone, but still she wants to see where her great-grandfather lived as a child. To set her feet on the earth there and know it directly. Justin is less curious about his own heritage.

Annie's father, Garrett Maki, spends most of his days and nights drunk since her mother's death, eighteen years before, while Annie was in the hospital recovering from the crash that crippled her. Garrett is on disability now, as a Vietnam veteran, but no one is certain just what his disability is. Annie suspects -- no, believes -- that her father was responsible for her mother's death: there had been a great deal of abuse, and Liz Maki died of a head injury the night of an outburst on Garrett's part. There were no witnesses, there were no charges. Domestic violence was not a thing people were comfortable talking about then. The eighties are as distant as the glaciers.

Annie walks with difficulty, always with that cane, and invariably wears long skirts to cover her scars and her atrophied muscles. Justin is able-bodied and hearty, half Chinese. He is known to local hockey fans as Wild Man Wong. Annie and Justin are fiercely in love.

Because Ursula is clamoring for lunch, they have pulled the truck over onto a graveled apron of the road, then meandered through a patch of woods, and are wandering peacefully in an odd clearing a short distance into the woods. They have no idea that this clearing once held the boiler house of an old mine. The grass grows up through a layer of finest ashy pea-gravel, a relic of the long-vanished brick structure. When the mine was operating, the land was scalped clean: no trees anywhere. The forest is thick again.

The fragrance of lilacs hovers in the air: there are wild lilac bushes to either side of the clearing. Lupines with their intense tiny indigo blooms poke up here and there. Clumps of wild lavender tuck themselves everywhere. Something else -- a bush? -- smells like licorice. Justin has set down the picnic basket in the grass. A tiny brown-speckled bird lands on its arched handle. Ursula chortles in delight and leaps to grab it.

"Nope," says Justin. "Birds are to fly." The bird, as if to demonstrate, lifts off. Ursula claps her hands in delight. Then she crouches again and tries to pick one of the tiny white blossoms. "Let it be," Annie says. "It will make a strawberry." Ursula rises to standing, her full height of two feet plus, plunks her fists onto her hips, elbows akimbo, and scowls in frustration: Here we are out in all this great sweet stuff and I can't do anything.

At the edge of the denser forest at the back of the clearing, there is a rustling sound. Papery, slight, but distinct in the silence. Ursula's head turns. A flash of white: a deer, venturing tentatively out of the forest, has spotted them, and turns tail to run. It is perhaps a dozen feet away. Ursula runs after it, squealing. The deer, of course, will not be caught, and there is nothing to say except "Let it go." Annie and Justin smile at each other, a moment too quick in its passing to run to the truck for the camera.

Ursula tiptoes dramatically, thinking perhaps of Olivia again -- she watches those Cosby Show reruns, mesmerized, over and over night after night and can recite people's lines along with them. She cranes back over her shoulder at Justin and Annie to make sure they see her. They beam at her. She puts her finger to her lips: Shhh. Her back is to them. The blond braid down her back shines like silk floss in the sunlight, against the plum violet quilt of the coat. The deer is still in sight, a few feet into the leafy green shade of the forest. She is determined to catch it. The delight in her eyes is unmistakable.

She gives them a sign in mime: Watch me. Ursula's every gesture seems meant for the comedic stage. She is a natural. She tiptoes toward the tree line. The deer disappears deeper into the forest, as silent as breath. Ursula puts on a burst of speed, silent herself, looking back at Justin and Annie, steps into the trees, and disappears from sight. The only sound is an astonished tiny intake of breath from Ursula as she goes down, like a penny into the slot of a bank, disappeared, gone.

Annie looks terror at Justin, trips on the long skirt that covers her scars, lurches forward, and falls awkwardly onto her bare elbows. They sting and ooze blood. Justin is already at the spot where Ursula disappeared. "Oh, God, Annie," he says. His voice is barely audible.

Annie raises herself on her cane and stumbles toward him. They stand transfixed, staring down. The opening into which Ursula has fallen is amazingly small, and they can see nothing but darkness. They certainly cannot see Ursula herself.

Neither of them wants to call out to her, unconsciously afraid their voices will echo back at them from too deep an emptiness. Both of them think: What is this? How deep? and Dear God, no. Both of them think: A mine shaft? Neither says the word.

Annie had tried to imagine the shaft into which her grandfather descended one August day three-quarters of a century ago and from which he did not come out alive: fifteen hundred feet deep. No one could survive such a fall . . . but is this such a shaft? Annie is telling herself, no, it must be something else. Too small for a mine shaft, surely. Way too small. Then it must be a well. She heaves a half-sigh of imaginary relief. But what would a well be doing out here in the forest? The answer would be: The same thing as a mine shaft, serving a different landscape, a different time. And why in the name of anything would a well seem a relief? Her breath clutches up again.

Rough old timbers are laid across an opening in the ground six or seven or eight feet square. It is too early in the summer for much foliage to have sprung up yet, but each year it has grown up and died off, and grown up and died off, so the timbers remain exposed. One of those years, perhaps forty years ago when Justin and Annie's parents were in high school -- and no one much has been here since, wandering into this forest which is after all nowhere -- a tiny shoot grew up between the first and second timbers. As it grew, it pushed them apart, and it has become a tall solid tree, growing from inside the hole, through the timbers set into a collar to seal this shaft. As it happens, this is indeed a mine shaft, an air shaft, meant only for ventilation of the long since abandoned passages below.

Annie kneels painfully, all her weight on her cane, and calls into the darkness: Ursula. She can't tell anything about the depth of the hole. She calls again: Ursula, and then she sobs. She looks up at Justin. It has been a providence that Ursula was so close and they both had their eyes on her, or they might fall into blaming themselves or each other in their grief. Neither even considers that.

Justin's eyes dart wildly but his mind is clear. "How far would you say it was since we saw civilization?" he says. "Thirty miles?" He stops. "Three miles?" It could be either.

"The cell!" Annie says. "In the truck?"

Justin runs to the truck, his work boots seeming to shake the ground. The cell phone lies on the front seat, tiny and useless amid a scattering of animal crackers. In crisis the mind focuses on minutiae: he thinks, Now is that cookie a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus? He picks up the phone. No signal. Of course, no signal: there are no towers out here in the wilderness.

He tries to remember how many cars they saw on the road. All he can remember is the fat, furry rear end of a black bear cub shambling off into the trees near a river, and Annie trying to take a snapshot. He follows that rabbit trail into his mind and recalls the bright topaz eyes of what must have been a cougar just off the road as they drove up in the dark in the rain, the night before. But of course a car coming along the road now, Justin thinks, would be no help at all: none of their phones work either. A rusty dark red Subaru zooms by, heading north. The road is once again empty and silent, the sunlight bright and impassive.

Justin remembers a time as a teenager when his first car, a beater the color of pea soup, had stopped dead just west of Sault Sainte Marie at twilight. A passing car had offered to send help, then didn't. He recalls walking alongside the road in the dark, kicking stones, mumbling "goddamn fucker" again and again. Can't chance that kind of thing now. Trust no one. Justin has not trusted many folks in his life anyway. He carries a grudge about his father's having abandoned the family when he was three, not much older than Ursula is now.

Justin calculates the distance back to the last town they passed, Eagle River, and then estimates mileage forward to Eagle Harbor, next on the map. Forward seems best. He runs back to Annie.

She sits silent on the ground, her legs out painfully straight before her, her eyes filled with tears. Justin's attention is drawn to the pattern of the fabric of her skirt: a pattern of tiny blueberries and green leaves. His mind is recording that to keep from attending to what has just happened. Blueberries, he thinks. I never noticed that those were blueberries.

The silence from the gap between the timbers is deafening, the darkness there impenetrable and magnetic as a black hole. They can see only a few inches into the opening: the leaf cover overhead is thick and the shade almost palpable. In the silence, the birds' twittering seems obscene, out of place.

Annie seems in a trance. She is not. This is just slow to register. Justin, however, is functioning in hockey mode: alert, aggressive, all nerve ends ready. "No phone," he says to Annie. "No towers." He sees the look of dismay in her eyes: lost, disbelieving. "I'm going to drive on to Eagle Harbor," he says. "I'll get help." He feels as if he will throw up his innards. "You can do this. Ursula will be okay." He sounds calmer than he feels. Annie just stares at him as if dumbfounded by his composure. "Look," he says, half-angrily. "Was she a miracle or what? So would God just let her go this way?" Annie can't believe he's talking this way. He can't stand for her to mention anything in the vicinity of God, shuts her down when she tries. All of a sudden he's preaching?

And of course Ursula is in no danger. Of course. This will all be explained in a moment. We're on an old Candid Camera show. No, America's Funniest Home Videos, that's it.

"Okay," Annie says, her voice belying her pounding heart. "Go then. I'll wait." She tries to think of something important to say about logistics, what he must not forget to do, but she can think of nothing at all. So she just repeats herself. "I'll wait." The tone is as if she were waiting her turn at the butcher's or the photo counter at Wal-Mart.

"Yeah, right," Justin says, his eyes wide with terror. He leans and kisses Annie on the top of her head. Her hair is warm. The pale skin of her part looks so vulnerable. He focuses on anything but that hole in the ground. "We'll get our miracle," he says.

"Hurry," she says, the audible quavering of her own voice this time scaring her. She squeezes his hand, and he's gone, the truck spraying up gravel.

It will be seven hours from now -- Monday night -- a news team on the TV will be helicoptered up from Marquette to broadcast nationally what is not this morning known to anyone else, what has not quite even registered in Annie's consciousness -- before the remark is made. A woman her parents' age back in Sault Sainte Marie will be lounging alone in the newly remodeled high-ceilinged living room of the home she inherited from her parents, passed down from her grandfather the judge. Fried and sour after two gins, she will grumble at the TV screen, "Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?"

Annie's mind is pulling up, as from a well, the tacit answer to that as yet unasked question. Annie cannot think of Ursula down that hole, so she thinks: So many generations, back into history and then prehistory, all concentrated into this one little girl.

This is the answer to the as yet unasked question, in backward format: this little girl carries with her the inheritance of generations uncounted, precious, induplicable. She is priceless, not only to Annie and Justin, but to the planet, the whole big fat blue-green ball hurtling through space.

As Annie's mind drops as far as it can conceive, down the dark hole of her own lack of knowledge about her own and Justin's families' past, an unfocused image of someone Chinese -- male or female she cannot see, an older person, to judge from the posture and shuffling step; likely a male now, to judge from the shoulders and slight baldness, wearing a green gown -- flits past her consciousness like a resurfacing memory of something she never knew to begin with.

She cannot flesh it out into focus so instead she begins trying to name the trees that surround her, to keep her mind off that hole and its darkness, and she cannot remember the names of the trees either. Her eyes fill with tears and, just for a brief second, overflow. The birdsong is deafening.

Justin heads north on the winding road, taking the curves too fast, hearing himself saying out loud to the empty cab, "Christ," again and again, and then "Crap," and then "Christ," and then silence.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
"Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?"

This question, posed in the first chapter of Ursula, Under, spills venomously from the lips of the inebriated Jinx Muehlenberg as her television beams to her the unfolding story of two-and-a-half-year-old Ursula Wong. Hours earlier, Ursula’s Chinese-American father Justin and her Finnish-American mother Annie watched in disbelief as she disappeared down an abandoned mine shaft. Now, as Ursula lies silent beneath the earth, the reader is given an elaborate answer to Jinx’s unfeeling query. We learn to care about Ursula, not merely because she is young, innocent, and beloved by her parents, but because her life is the culmination of an astonishing genealogy, dating back to ancient China and Finland.

In a series of stories, interspersed with the details of Ursula’s attempted rescue, we discover that her ancestors have endured against impossible odds and that their combined legacy is now encapsulated within the tiny body trapped in the mine—a body made precious by heredity and history.

Like Ursula herself, the stories of these ancestors lie buried and silent. They are unknown even to Annie and Justin as they anxiously await word of their daughter’s fate. However, through the panoramic vision and striking prose of Ingrid Hill, these stories rise one by one above the surface. They tell of a brilliantly improbable collection of characters: a philosophical Chinese alchemist desperate to produce an heir; a Finnish maiden saved by her deafness from blood sacrifice; the young playmate of a Swedish princess; an irresponsible abalone fisherman; a mining supervisor who himself perished in a mining accident; and a host of others. Alternating between tales of relatives long dead and stories of the struggles of those still living, Hill revives memories and resurrects lost dreams and expired passions. She writes unflinchingly of disasters and tenderly of triumphs. "All back story is also story," Hill advises the reader early on, and she proceeds to prove it, illustrating that, out of the purest randomness of human association, unique miracles are persistently born. If it is Ingrid Hill’s principal goal to convince us that little Ursula Wong is such a miracle, it is also part of her project to show that each of us is a bit miraculous as well.

And yet, standing at the periphery of all these marvels, like a bad fairy in a child’s nursery tale, is the malignant presence of Jinx Muehlenberg, whose role in the lives of the Wong family is persistent and unreasoningly evil. As Jinx casually spews racist condemnations at her television and as Justin and Annie wonder if they will ever see their child again, the reader becomes aware that a third delicate excavation is taking place within these pages. Ursula, Under is not only about liberating a little girl from a dark hole and retrieving the past from lapsed memory; it is also about the ceaseless struggle to extract moments of goodness and purity from a world of tragedy.

ABOUT INGRID HILL

Ingrid Hill is the author of the short story collection Dixie Church Interstate Blues. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has twelve children, including two sets of twins. She lives in Iowa City.

AN INTERVIEW WITH INGRID HILL
Among its other qualities, Ursula, Under is a tour de force of historical detail. How did you amass the knowledge that enabled you to write so richly of Chinese, Finnish, and immigrant experiences?

When I was left a single mom with eleven children, I had to get a career to support them, so I went back to graduate school to be able to teach literature and writing at the college level. I needed two foreign languages as part of this program, and I was feeling a bit heady with both the impossibility and the necessity of this, so I asked for Swedish first. My father was Swedish-American, a sea captain, and I’d always wanted to study Swedish but never had a chance. As part of my program, I got to study in Sweden, and the Swedish history and culture classes really intrigued me, especially the era of Gustavus Adolphus.

I met my second husband in a writers’ group here and we became friends. He went to China for a year to teach English teachers at a university there, and he invited me to visit. I was hooked. I had no explanation for my immediate and unexpected love for China, but in retrospect I think it was the enforced simplicity (which verged over into deprivation) of people’s lives there under communism, which led to more intensity of friendships and concern for family rather than for possessions and distractions. I imagine this has changed a lot in fifteen years as China has lurched unevenly toward capitalism. I was moved by their fascination with my large family, which they told me again and again was like the traditional Chinese family, by contrast with which their government mandated a one-child policy that was very unevenly and sometimes horrendously enforced. Then I marveled at the fact that the Cultural Revolution had in a sense—by banning classical literature and art—pretty effectively wiped out their collective cultural memory. Finally, I decided that the ceremonial quality of so much of Chinese life probably felt familiar to me because of my having grown up in Catholicism, as odd as that may seem. It made emotional, visceral sense to me.

Finally, I guess I’m an “immigrant,” having moved from New Orleans’s unique combination of voodoo Catholicism and party-down Mardi Gras les bon temps rouler (let the good times roll) attitude to a very different Midwestern culture that felt alien and ate less red-beans-and-rice. A sociologist here at the University of Iowa, Jennifer Glass, did a study on immigrant family size and found that in the first generation, immigrants tend to retain the family-size expectations of their homeland, while the second generation, born in the new culture, takes on that culture’s model. That’s true for my children and me. I have lot of friends from other cultures and have always been interested in their experiences as immigrants. I began thinking about what the nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants’ lives were like and tried to put myself inside them. I do my historical research like a child: books piled all around me, and me absorbing the facts, drawings, photographs, anecdotes, ambiances like a sponge . . . till I can squeeze myself like that sponge and out leaks . . . story.

Ursula, Under expresses Ursula Wong’s genealogy as somehow both random and teleological. On the one hand, the novel is constructed on a series of improbable events, yet, on the other hand, none of these events can fail to take place if Ursula is ever to exist at all. Your book seems to happen at the intersection of blind chance and inescapable destiny. By the same token, of course, each one of us is a laughable improbability; the odds against all those particular sperm and eggs coming together were incalculable, and yet, here we are. What are your thoughts about the relationships among randomness, fate, and the things we choose to call miracles?

Chaos science says that in any phenomenon that appears chaotic—say, a weather system—there is in fact an intricate implicate order. I have found that to be true in all kinds of situations that at first seem to make no sense: indeed, there is order, we just have to “dig”—and/or sit patiently—to find it. When Justin tells Annie that he believes that there are two kinds of people in the world, people who like mysteries and people who believe that life itself is a mystery, and he belongs to the latter group, I’m with him. The most intriguing things (people, events, trends) in life have a hidden order and simultaneously pulse with mystery: sometimes they give up their secrets to us and sometimes they don’t.

Augustine of Hippo said that a miracle is not contrary to nature, only to what we know of nature, and I like that a lot. I’ve had enough experiences in my life that are beyond the pale that I’d be a dunderhead not to believe in miracles. By the way, teleology is a word I seldom hear, and this is the first time it’s come up in an interview. Kudos to you. I think our culture prefers to lie back and believe simultaneously that life is an uncontrollable juggernaut running us down and flattening us like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon and that, at the same time, we are gods who control our own destinies—or should be. Neither of these positions is subtle or true to experience. I think people who aren’t willing to entertain complexity and ambiguity—and suspend judgment in hope of a bigger or subtler or more complex “revelation”—miss a lot of the fun of life. Those people probably think I’m a dodo for not thinking that “winning” a bowl game or a world war is the be-all and end-all. Obviously that’s the way I treated wars in the novel: nothing good in ’em, and nothing solved by them. But lots of regular people have been socialized to think that life is binary that way. Win/lose.

Ursula Wong is not merely the meeting point of a number of great individual stories. She is also a symbolic confluence of East and West. What were your thoughts about this coming together when you were working on this novel?

Well, Ursula as a character is a composite of two little faces in photos in my family stash: my daughter Maria, who looks as if she is 100 percent her daddy’s, Finnish blue-eyed and blond, and my godchild Tian-Tian, the same age, who is 100 percent Chinese. Her mom is my dear friend since my first trip to China. Those two faces blended in my mind’s eye and I thought, wow, what a beautiful child. I thought Ursula would be a great emblem for all the good aspects of the blending of western and Asian cultures. I do think that blending of eastern and western cultures is happening, and not only in good ways. As wealth comes to the third world, so too do aspirations to be “like America” in all the worst ways. Greed comes onstage, families shatter, diversion replaces substance. I think it’s a difficult period in history, but, hey, what period wasn’t? That’s one thing a study of history teaches us.

Your last name, Hill, is a translation of the Finnish word “maki,” which enters the novel as Annie’s surname. Are there other subtle ways in which you have written yourself into the novel?

Okay, let’s be clear that this is not about me but about the process of an author creating a character. And thanks for calling that “subtle,” hah. Actually, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the names Hill and Maki are as common as can be, take up whole pages in the telephone directories, so it’s not so much about us as about the whole Finn-immigrant culture.

Finns were often named after features of the natural landscape, so their surname might signify that they were “from the back hill,” “from the judgment hill” (where the civil authority resided), “from the fire hill,” “from the church hill” (Kyrkomaki, which would be Churchhill in English). A man in one audience on my first book tour told me that in the UP town where he went to school the guys referred to “dating the local Makis,” as if Maki were a generic name for a Finn. I wanted that resonance.

The students I met in my time in China said of their teachers that “a good teacher is like a silkworm, spinning silk out of the very core of his or her being.” I think that all good authors do this too. Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” So when I tell you about parts of me that are in various characters, let’s be clear that that observation is about the process, which also operates in other authors, not specifically about me.

Justin was the first character to develop, several years before Ursula came along. I have always had music as a central part of my life, couldn’t live without it. Justin’s adrenalin scrappiness, c’est moi. That’s my Inner Goalie, eh. Annie’s need-to-know, all of the trivial facts that add up to reality, i.e., how they get the holes in Lorraine Swiss cheese, and how it’s different from SWISS Swiss . . . c’est moi. Mindy Ji’s younger hippie self at Woodstock, that’s me, but in Berkeley, California; her mature cookie-batter-flinging multitasking self that might not watch the speed limits if she’s heading for the scene of Ursula’s accident, that’s me too. Liz Maki having parades and dancing to “My Sharona,” that’s me with my kids when they were littler.

As for the historical characters: Qin Lao’s sober perseverance and determination to get his experiments right, c’est moi. Kyllikki’s early determination not to marry, c’est moi also: I used to think I’d wind up a nun: no, seriously, folks. Olavi’s way of attaching a story to every material object: yeah, I plead guilty. Ming Tao’s tongue-in-cheek but also unrelenting logic, that’s mine, and Josserand’s delight in the “earthier exegesis” of his Parisian Protestant mentors, that’s mine too—not to mention his resistance to doctrinal foolishness bred of human laws. Violeta’s status as an orphan: in some ways that feels like my life, as I was an outsider in my family-of-origin, like a freaking space alien. Chen Bing’s looking for “signs” in everything, for Chinese characters flung out in seaweed—that would be yours truly. Alabaster Wong’s peculiarity as a “spelling snob,” uff da, that’s me as well. Oh, yeah, and my name in China, given to me by a communist police chief, was Tian Hu, a name that appears at the end of chapter two.

World literature contains a number of works that might be classified as national epics: the Italians have The Aeneid, the French have The Song of Roland, and so on. Do you think it might be fruitful to think of Ursula, Under as a revision of the epic genre, such that the subject of the epic is no longer the birth of a nation, but the making of an individual?

Oy. The epic, bound up as it is in conquest and force of might, is not my native genre. I studied the Scandinavian and Icelandic and Old English sagas years ago and picked up (and enjoyed) their broody quality, pagan culture, life and death served up like steak tartare. Even in those sagas, though, it is the individual who holds our interest. Nation-building is such a guy thing, come on, and the cobbling-up of national epics is a part of that. The Kalevala is the Finnish “national epic” but it is really a very late creation, a collection of existing folk tales in the oral tradition, put together by Elias Lonnrot in the first half of the nineteenth century. Finland’s history—and we see only the tip of it in Ursula, Under—is one of sisu or determination, a culture caught between a rock and a hard place again and again, its “nationhood” a dicey proposition. Rather than seeing Ursula, Under as a revision of the epic genre—very male—I’d like to see it as a female take on culture-building, not reacting against or developing from the dominant model but simply its own way of seeing things. Traditional American history tends to privilege the British element and arrange all other cultures around that, in marginal fashion. I don’t think that makes much sense, but we are so accustomed to seeing things the way we’ve been taught that it’s hard to rearrange “reality” in our heads.

For instance, we tend to see America as being built from the east coast: coming to this continent across the Atlantic, moving westward in a wave (the frontier), filling the continent and subduing it. Maybe even mowing it down. That’s a culturally male way of looking at things.

I wrote a story here that has a different shape, more circular, more feminine: cultures from the east coming across the western sea and vice-versa, and our particular family epic pulling together like a drawstring at the center of the continent, at Lake Superior. The making of an individual is certainly more than the sum of culture, nation, and family, but these give us a ground upon which to build, to see the person who is like no other person.

One of the central premises of your book seems to be that every life is precious because of the incredible struggles that people have endured across the millennia so that each of us might exist. You have chosen to make this claim, however, on behalf of a person who is already powerfully sympathetic; one would hope that only a monster like Jinx would fail to be moved by a beautiful, blameless toddler who falls down a mine shaft. Do you think that your argument that life is made priceless by heredity would hold equally true for a harder case, for instance, a death-row inmate or, indeed, Jinx herself?

Let’s start with Jinx. I surely did everything I could to redeem her, but her own choices undid her. Early readers of the novel commented on the fact that I had been able to show Jinx so compassionately—and I hope that is true—by suggesting that something in her own background predisposed her to her harshness.

Once upon a time years ago I met a woman this mean, meaner than I knew a human being could be, and she hovered in my mind malignly. I thought for a long time: why is she that way? I never came to an answer, but I made an assumption that it came from something way back, and deep. I don’t excuse Jinx but I try to say: there’s a reason she’s this way, and there but for the grace of God go we all. Jinx is a meditation on the question that woman raised for me.

To argue the preciousness of any individual’s life, Ursula is a great place to start because she is, as you say, both beautiful and blameless. But beauty comes in many forms, and yes, I believe it holds true for even the hardest cases. I have been an activist against capital punishment, not because I am soft on crime but because it makes no sense to take a life to show that taking a life is wrong, not to mention that studies have shown that when there is an execution, violent crime rates immediately skyrocket in response. It breeds violence. And so many criminals executed for their crimes have later been proven innocent. Oopsy.

For years I had wanted to write fiction featuring a character with a serious disability, but today all the “hardware” attending a physical limitation tends to draw attention to itself, as well as to mitigate the disability itself. So I wanted to write about these individuals—who are also blameless—in a way that would foreground their humanity.

Thus, Qin Lao’s mute servant Zhou in Sichuan province (or, if you will, Qin Lao himself in his near-sterility), or Kyllikki a millennium later in the Village of the Sled Dogs, deaf from a fever, or noble Ming Tao born with “useless legs,” or “white trash” Annie Maki crippled by Jinx—these are all people who are in one way or another broken, imperfect, and I hope it’s clear that they are also priceless. There are many more half-hidden in the text, along the lines of those puzzle-pictures: find the hidden giraffe in the jungle.

In my so-called “real” life” I have worked as an aide to people confined to wheelchairs by cerebral palsy. I have served at the local free lunch program for people of limited means—lots of whom are in that position because of mental illness (real or imputed) or addictions, which are partly physical in origin. I am thinking in particular of Vietnam veterans, for whom my heart has ached for years. And now we have Gulf War veterans and Iraq is making its own. I have friends among these people, because I like them. I have been an advocate/supporter for women with unplanned pregnancies, and for their babies when they’re born. I have been a peer counselor for abuse survivors. My husband has a kind heart for the elderly and has volunteered at the senior center for years—and we’ll all get there soon enough.

As for old Jinx, she gave me the story, really: it was her remark, heard clearly in my head, which gave me the trigger for chapter one, so thank you, Virginia Jean.

Ursula, Under is interwoven with unexpected musical references, many of which have an almost miraculous feel to them. The deaf Kyllikki is able to “hear” a Bach cello sonata that will not be written for another thousand years. The dying Violeta is eerily aware of a motif from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, also as yet unwritten. Unspecified music also accompanies the closing tableau of Ursula’s ancestors on the novel’s last page. Why does music play such a strong, mystical role in the novel?

Thanks for noting that. My reason for doing that was that I heard these myself, in my head, and I thought, why not share them with my readers in this way? The reason for my being unspecific in the “cloud of witnesses” finale was that I felt by this point my reader should have been brought to the point where he or she could become a co-imaginer with me, filling in more than is on the page, and deserving of having his or her name in the credits that roll at the end of the film.

And of course, since this is not a film, I ought to say that I wrote it as if it in fact were a film, as if I were responsible for scenery and effects and background music and even olfactory enhancement—smell-o-vision—which wouldn’t be a factor if the book were a film. Readers of today read differently from those of a century ago, because they are so strongly influenced by film, film, film everywhere, and that is the audience for whom I write. Film has extended the parameters of our individual experience in ways never before imagined, and filmgoers will be reading this book with all the antennae they developed watching film—which I guess may no longer be literally film, if everything goes digital. O brave new world that has such cool stuff in it.

Reporting on Ursula’s accident, Brandi Chandler-Greene wonders, “How can we tie this to the World Trade Center?” How was your writing of this novel influenced by 9/11, and what effect do you think 9/11 is having on the course of American fiction?

The World Trade Center disaster occurred in the middle of my writing of the novel. I spent a day or so glued to the television and a lot of hours reading the New York Times individual biographies of all the people who died that day. Then I went back to writing my novel.

I tried to portray Brandi Chandler-Greene sympathetically but as a newscaster in the mold of many today, always looking for a “hook” and sometimes reaching too much. She has had a sheltered life, and that is why 9/11 is the only disaster that comes to her mind. In the classroom, I find that to most students Vietnam might as well be the Peloponnesian Wars—and when was that Persian Gulf dealie again?—and World War II and World War I all blur together. The Spanish-American war, the Civil War, the American Revolution, the French and Indian Wars . . . aiiiee. Many people seem to think those were clean conflicts, sanitized and heroic deaths. We have little sense of history (that’s from the department of understatement) and that’s not a great thing.

As for natural disasters, as I write this, the world has just survived the Christmas earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand: would anyone have conceived of something like that, even the day before? Likely not, but last year’s movie The Day After Tomorrow eerily presaged it nonetheless. The power of nature continues to astound us: see Storm Stories on the Weather Channel and Twister (which was shot in part on a farm adjacent to the camp my children attended, here in Iowa).

Just yesterday as I was having my coffee I looked up and there on the TV was Pierce Brosnan in Dante’s Peak, a volcano erupting in the middle of everyone’s “normal” lives. I think disaster stories serve as a kind of catharsis as well as a form of dress rehearsal in our minds for something that might be just around the corner.

I saw a great list on Amazon, a guy’s favorite disaster movies: Nature Hates You was the title. Itty-bitty humans fighting the forces of nature always makes a story. We win for a bit, but then we die, and Mother Nature goes on high-fiving Father Time—and there comes the Disney cartoon version of Zeus with those thunderbolts.

Ursula, Under contains a host of bad fathers and husbands. Joe Cimmer abandons Justin and his mother. Annie Maki’s father is an alcoholic. Daisy Chen, the omniscient narrator tells us, would have been sexually mistreated by her father Chen Bing if he had not drowned. Isak Karajamaki is incapable of sexual expression that is not a form of degradation. Why in a novel that so enthusiastically celebrates procreation does the narrative voice seem so suspicious of one half of the procreative equation?

Gimme a break. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that fathers leave their families more often than mothers leave their families. As Bill Clinton said when asked why he did what he did—“Because I could”—similarly the prevalence of father-abandonment is because more men can leave. It’s as if we make a mental note, oh, well, another one bites the dust, and hardly a ripple on the radar. Cinderella keeps sweeping while she composes a symphony in her head—and more women are busy handling the nitty-gritty business of life which is not so easy to walk out on.

But really, now, you can’t mean that you think I condemn these guys you named, do you? I want my reader to have compassion for them, too. Joe is impacted by his own father’s abandonment—“Because he could”—and I think we get quite a good view into his tortured psyche, which cannot comprehend Mindy Ji’s forgiveness, but that’s okay. Win-win situation.

Garrett Maki is such a lost soul because his mind was shattered by what he was forced to do in Vietnam, in the name of “manliness,” and Liz consistently defends him to Annie as a person who was not this way before. Chen Bing is a tad like Jinx, though far less malevolent: he is just an unredeemed screw-up. Still I hope my readers can identify with that screw-up part of themselves, because we all have it in us.

And I think you’re taking Isak somewhere I never meant for him to go. We can identify with Marjatta’s chagrin at his insensitivity, but, hey, he didn’t invent it, and he’s trying, and it’s sad that Marjatta can never love him as she loved Emil, even though Isak tries his darnedest.

Point B would be: the biggest villains, the nastiest people, in this book are female: Jinx Muehlenberg?—check. Vappu-Loviisa?—check. Christina of Sweden?—hardly a redeeming quality to her, right? Feminism is not about female superiority but about equality and inclusion and cooperation, none of which these gals believe in. These women have power, but they seem to have sold out their humanity in the process of gaining it—a characteristic which is not gender-bound.

Good writers tend to know a few things about the art of reading. What words of advice do you have for readers seeking to get the most out of reading your fiction and, indeed from their reading experiences in general?

I would hope they’d bring to my book the same hunger for experience that they bring to the movies: in literature, language is the medium, and it demands more of the reader than film in some respects—the reader must be in charge of casting, and location, and scenes, and special effects, and so on—but I think my readers are up to that. I would hope that some of my love of language and image might be contagious, and that others might say, hey, I didn’t know language could do that, and then do it themselves, in their speaking and e-mailing and maybe even writing. I think this applies to all writing worth reading.

Your biography mentions that you are the mother of twelve children. Are there qualities in a successful parent that also go toward making a fine writer?

Mmmmmaybe. For instance, in the Odyssey, while Odysseus is away, Penelope keeps weaving and undoing and reweaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes; she is doing this to postpone a task she does not want, that of giving up on Odysseus and choosing from among her pesky suitors. I think that that is a wonderful metaphor for a lot of things we do, where we seem to have to start over a fresh every day—and no, I do not think that the myth of Sisyphus and his rock that keeps rolling back down is as good for my purposes, because Penelope’s task is a more complex one. I think that the task of a parent and the task of a writer are much like Penelope’s: new every day, and only more demanding, not less, though also more rewarding.

I cannot imagine parenting a child without paying a great deal of attention to nurturing his or her imagination and faculty of questioning, and that is something that good writing does for its readers too.

I was once told (when I had eleven children) that Virginia Woolf said a writer could not have eleven children because her brain would have turned to mush. I replied that that simply showed the limitations of Virginia Woolf’s perspectives, which made sense in her sheltered and aristocratic life but don’t work as well everywhere else. Not to mention that today we have so many more practical helps (more ease of food preparation, cars, appliances, film and video, the Internet) in raising and educating children. Yes, I know the Internet is a jungle, but as the writer above puts it, life continues to be a “ceaseless struggle to extract moments of goodness and purity from a world of tragedy.” So the Internet is also a miracle.

Parenting takes perseverance: so does writing. Parenting demands creativity: so does writing. Parenting pays back great emotional and spiritual rewards—and also gives us grief. So does writing. Both are manifestations of the great spirit of life itself.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Although Ingrid Hill sets much of Ursula, Under in distant historical times, she writes almost all of the novel in the present tense. How might this choice affect the reader’s response to her narrative?
     
  • Many of the figures in the historical chapters of Ursula, Under are potentially rich enough to be the heroes of their own separate novels. Which of these characters do you think would be the best subject for a complete book, and why?
     
  • A sparkling scene takes place in “The Minister of Maps” when Ming Tao challenges Father Josserand to explain the mysteries of Christianity to her. Although the scene illustrates the depth of Josserand’s humor and humanity, it also reveals his willingness to entertain blasphemous ideas. What are the most important questions raised about religion, and about Josserand’s character, in this story?
     
  • Ursula, Under is a book laden with seemingly senseless catastrophes. A priest is murdered in his sleep for having performed a baptism. Children are trampled to death at a Christmas party. Annie is crippled by a hit-and-run driver. A pregnant woman drowns in a frozen pond. Does Hill appear to find moral or cosmic significance in suffering? If so, what is that significance?
     
  • The sexual pairings and circumstances by which the bloodlines are carried forward in this novel often anything but conventional. There is a general scarcity of long, happy, monogamous unions. What does the unusual quality of the relationships contribute to Hill’s novel?
     
  • The historical chapters of Ursula, Under are frequently concerned with the struggles of women to achieve control and dignity in their lives despite social forces that, left unchallenged, would render them passive and dependent. Can Ursula, Under be classified as a feminist novel, and, if so, what are the features of Hill’s idea of feminism?
     
  • Ingrid Hill frequently reminds us of the many things that her characters do not know; she comments repeatedly on their inability to remember the past and the impossibility of foreseeing the future. Why do you think she chose to place such powerful emphasis on states of not knowing?
     
  • In some ways, Ursula, Under can be thought of as a protracted response to Jinx Muehlenberg’s question, “Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?” How successfully does the novel respond to that question? Are the stories submerged in a person’s hereditary past a persuasive reason for caring about that person? Are we truly willing to embrace the premise that every person is, as Hill says with reference to Ursula, “priceless . . . to the planet”?
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  • Posted May 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    beautiful and lush...

    Ursula, Under is a beautiful story of a little girl and all the people throughout the centuries that went in to creating this little girl. The main story is set around 2 year old Ursula who has fallen down a mine shaft. The book though, is actually many short stories about Ursula's ancestors starting in the third century B.C. and working it's way up through Ursula's parents. Sprinkled between these shorter stories is the story of Ursula and the rescue efforts going on in Michigan's Upper Penninsula. The characters in Ursula, Under are many and varied. The environment, whether it be Michigan, Finland or China, is lush and beautiful. After I turned the last page I wanted to flip back to the beginning and start again immediatley. Ingrid Hill is very knowlegeable about history and culture and I can tell a lot of research went into creating this novel. The end result is an impressive debut novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2006

    Barnes & Noble Bookseller handsells this books with a quickness!!

    As a college instructor, I am using this book in my Women¿s Literature classroom. My students are devouring it: they can¿t get enough. This book is sublime, delicious, courageous, and one I could not put down. As a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, I have been hand-selling Ursula, Under to book clubs, talking to curious customers, and selling out of this book with a quickness. In truth, I have been writing Oprah every day to get this book on her book club this book deserves some special and exquisite attention!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2005

    Incredibly ambitious debut novel

    What an original and ambitious plot, it¿s hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I found this book to be beautifully written with complicated, twisting side stories interwoven throughout. I enjoyed learning about the history of this family starting thousands of years before and culminating in the present situation of a little girl, Ursula, who has fallen through a tunnel. About two thirds of the way through however I did find myself skipping a few of the side stories to get to the present situation. I would recommend it to friends and I think it could be a good book club book for those with the patience to see it to its wonderful finale.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2005

    Exquisite Writing To Lose Yourself In

    A Washington Post Bookends Book of the Year Award (2004) and this web site doesn't even mention that! Rarely have I EVER read such consistently beautiful, lyrical storytelling. Few writers write with this level of deftness and sheer beauty. Not only is it a compelling tale (and TALES interwoven!), but the writer taps into the magic of turning language itself into rare paintings. She's on a level with Ondaatje and Erdrich there. This book is a feast. Watch out--storytelling like this is hard to find. Best grab it where and while you can.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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