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Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

2.8 80
by A. Manette Ansay

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In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty and pain, and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen


In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty and pain, and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill--a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine--where calculated cruelty is a way of life preserved and perpetuated in the service of a rigid, exacting and angry God. Behind a facade of false piety, there are sins and secrets in this place that could crush a vibrant young woman's passionate spirit. And here Ellen must find the straight to endure, change, and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.

Editorial Reviews

Madison Smartt Bell
A brilliant, bitter book...Manette Ansay's prose style cuts with a diamond edge.
Amy Tan
A modern-day Little House on the Prairie gone mad...Manette Ansay is a powerful storyteller with lyrical gifts and a wry, observant eye.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A remarkably well-told tale...that not only rivets our attention but floods our veins with the icy chill of recognition and understanding...Vinegar Hill is a powerful story of a haunting, not by the dead but by the living. It is a haunting you won't soon forget.
The New Yorker
Ansay transcends both feminist epic and Midwestern gothic to achieve, finally, the lunar world of tragedy. This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the book's final line is worth the pain it takes to get there.
Library Journal
Ellen must go with her unemployed husband to live with her in-laws. Their home in Hollysfield, WI, is a place of unrelenting negativity and rigidity. In the early 1970s, when women are just begnning to recognize their choices, Ellen must decide whether she will stick with her marriage or save herself and her children. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up James's coat, because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he and Fritz and Mary-Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with moss-colored carpet, Fritz's La-Z-Boy, Mary-Margaret's embroidered parlor chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary-Margaret's piano shines with lemon oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just her fingertips show.

"I'm going for a walk," she says.

"Why?" Herbert says.

"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight-thirty, put yourselves to bed."

"But you'll be back by eight-thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.

"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good-bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.

"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary-Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark,worried eyes.

"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.

Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."

"Mama's boy," Mary-Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."

"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary-Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.

Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. These after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, as she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowning the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.

From the street the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.

That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.

Oh no, it was much too dry.

No, really, it was good.

Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.

But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch and wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the singsong way of a prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat end the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.

She heads toward the downtown past other ranch-style houses, each centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it all—the harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a mile—the clock in the steeple like a huge, patient eye.

Meet the Author

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.

Brief Biography

Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Lapeer, Michigan
MFA, Cornell University, 1991

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Vinegar Hill 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 80 reviews.
Auntielou More than 1 year ago
I read this book for book club and I found it very sad and depressing. I did finish the book because I wanted to see how it ended. Not one of my favorite books
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Short and sweet! Written very well! If the author wanted to set you into a tailspin of antidepressants....she succeeded! But sickeningly enough, I couldn't put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If a the quality of a book is judged by its ability to trigger the reader's emotions, then I would have to give this book five stars. It is extraordinarily well-written and provocative. However, I was deeply disturbed by the anti-Catholic themes running throughout the book and especially by the fact that our heroine finds that her spiritual ally is a woman who committed infanticide. Instead of suggesting that Ellen honestly reach out to family, friends, and/or clergy for help, the author seems to blame Ellen's Catholicism for her inability to discuss her problems with anyone. Prospective readers should be forewarned about these troubling themes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
Wonderful Read Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay tells the story of Ellen, a young woman who is forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband loses his job. Chastised for wanting a college education and never quite good enough in the eyes of her mother-in-law, Ellen chooses to support her husband by silently accepting the decisions he has made for their family.  Set in the early 1960′s, when leaving a marriage was nearly unthinkable, the reader is able to walk alongside Ellen as she lives day to day with her distant husband, violent father-in-law, and subtly cruel mother-in-law. Although Ellen is the main character, various chapters give the reader a glimpse into the minds of the other characters, including the children, which allows for a bit of balance and empathy for the others. When I finished reading Vinegar Hill (an Oprah Book Club pick in 1999), I couldn’t shake the image of a volcano with lava slowly pouring out of it and cascading into neighboring areas. This is not because there are any volcanos or natural disasters in the book, but rather due to the author’s way of telling the story with an underlying heat and a slow and smooth style of writing. At its core, each character is angry and trying to make sense of their current situation. Their angers are bubbling just below the surface and reach out to touch each of the other characters in ways that they don’t anticipate or recognize. Despite each character having their own struggles, they all boil down to their current living arrangements, which has magnified their individual issues into a toxic atmosphere in which each person is feeding off of the negative energy of the others. Despite the steady flow of the book, there were a few story lines that were left unfinished. Granted, they weren’t vital to the story as a whole, but they incited some empathy in me for some of the characters and I was left wondering whether my empathy was misplaced. Vinegar Hill is a book that can be read in one sitting, preferably on a cold or rainy day.  It’s melancholy and realistic portrayal of a difficult marriage in the early 1960′s is heartbreaking and, I can imagine for those a bit older than me, a familiar story. Side note: After reading an interview with the author, I learned that she was in a similar living situation. This added a depth to the book that was not previously there and made me look back on the book even more fondly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book left me with nothing to feel better about at the end of it, completly disheartening.
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luv2read4mysanity More than 1 year ago
Interesting book in its own way, but not a favorite
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Incredible good fiction. Ms. Ansay has the power to describe even the most despicable situations in beautiful language. This is the story of a man who moves his family to his parents home after loosing his job. Once he goes back, the whole family starts to unravel. James is a tormented man who suffered physical and mental abuse from his father and brother during his childhood. His father still belittles him and hits him but he still seems like a child powerless to stop it. His mother is an unstable woman who hides in religion to survive the terrible secret she carries. Ellen, James wife, turns to pills to numb the suffocating atmosphere of this home and is also powerless to break the cycle that is allineating her children from her, specially her oldest daughter. She tries to reach to her family, but neither her sisters or her mother understand since they are highly traditional and religious, therefor, marriage is forever no matter what. It is a novel about people reaching the end of the rope in an unbearable situation where mental unstability touches almost all of the characters. But the ending is hopeful and teaches that we all can break free one way or another. I highly recommend it to all those fiction enthusiasts who love tragic multilayered characters. I also recommend As God Commands, Back Roads, Sarah's Key.
reading_rainbows More than 1 year ago
This was extremely depressing and after finishing the book, I really could not seem to find what the overall message was. Every character in this story frustrated me at some point. I felt if you didn't know what year Ansay was writing about you would think early 1900's with the way everyone stayed in a loveless marriage in the novel. However, the novel was supposed to be taking place in 1972. Some things like the portrayal of the time period, along with certain events in the characters' lives seem unrealistic. I do have to hand it to Ansay for having an eloquent way of writing. Her style of writing was almost like descriptive poetry. I really enjoyed how she ties the chapter's beginning paragraph with the chapter's last paragraph. It's a quick read, but you are constantly waiting for something big to happens which it really never does. I cannot believe this is part of Oprah's book club. To me, this book does not compare with Toni Morrison's works or Wally Lamb's works.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This boook was a good message who are going through things. Even though the plots(story) go back and forth. I understood the messeage in which it presented to other people. It's a good message. It's a good book
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