Excerpt from Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Ursula, Under

by Ingrid Hill

Ursula, Under
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  • First Published:
    May 2004, 476 pages
    Jun 2005, 512 pages

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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.

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.

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