Monday, November 27, 2006


Ursula, Under, Ingrid Hill, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004, 476 pp

This is one of the more amazing books I have ever read. Ursula Hill, who is also a mother of 12 children and has a PhD in literature, is a very hip woman. She is one of those writers, like Margaret Atwood, who shows rather than tells what feminism truly means. It is not lost on me that both of these women are highly educated.

The main story involves two-year-old Ursula and her young parents: Annie, of Finnish descent, and Justin Wong, a Chinese-American. They live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and while on a trip to see an defunct mine where Annie's great-grandfather perished in a mining accident, Ursula accidentally falls down an old mine shaft herself, setting off a huge rescue effort.

While this would make a great story in itself, it takes up only about one fifth of the novel. The remainder is a breathtaking journey back into history which traces the ancestry of Annie and Justin from first century Finland and from 4000 BC in China. Such a massive undertaking makes fascinating reading. I wish I had drawn a family tree as I read. Ingrid Hill brings these ancestors alive as she tells their life stories while she presents a philosophy of history and humanity that I found wonderful and unique.

That is not all. In telling the story of Ursula, Annie and Justin, she draws a picture of contemporary American life that is at once caustic and humorous. It is also sociological in scope, political and cultural in flavor. There are pitch-perfect references to popular phenomena such as music, books, film, clothing, housing, the job market and the list goes on.

Finally comes the climax of the plot which had me in tears for pages yet left me feeling hopeful for the sheer strength of the human spirit and appreciative of my own ancestors. We are all the angels of each other.

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