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
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 personlittle Ursula Wong.
Ursula's story echoes those of her ancestors, many of whom so narrowly escaped not being born that her very existencelike ourscomes to seem a miracle. Ambitious and accomplished, Ursula, Under is, most of all, wonderfully entertaininga daring saga of culture, history, and heredity.
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 ...
If you liked Ursula, Under, try these:
Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent.
Tan's newest novel mixes pure fiction with elements of autobiography. In the acknowledgements she writes, "The heart of this story belongs to my grandmother, its voice to my mother".
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