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.
From Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill. Copyright Ingrid Hill 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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