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Ancestors and Angels
This is one of the more amazing books I've 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 a defunct mine where Annie's great-grandfather perished in a mining accident, Ursula accidentally falls down an old mine shaft, setting off a huge rescue effort.
While this would make a great story by itself, it takes up only about a fifth of the novel. The remainder is a breathtaking journey back into history which traces the ancestry of Justin and Annie from 4000 BC China and first century Finland. 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. She also 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 and 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.
Then comes the climax of the plot which had me in tears for pages yet left me feeling hopeful for the sheer strenth of the human spirit and appreciative of my own ancestors. We are all the angels of each other.
In lesser hands the audacious scheme of this novel might have reeked of gimmick. As it is you never doubt that Ingrid Hill is trying to write the best book she can.
On a crystalline, perfectly blue morning in June, a young married couple driving across upper Michigan stop to picnic in a clearing, then watch in horror as their two and a half year old daughter suddenly vanishes, swallowed by what they discover hidden in undergrowth is a tiny hole in a poorly sealed and long-forgotten mineshaft.
As the rescue mission slowly grinds into action the media are determined to bring the drama into every home. Alone and swilling gin in the big house she's inherited, Jinx Muehlenberg watches live tv coverage and complains, "Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?" And so Hill proceeds to take us on a 2,000 year journey, beginning back in ancient China, to demonstrate exactly why little Ursula's existence is so precious.
In truth there is no need to stretch back-story to such extraordinary lengths in order to kindle fierce sympathy for the loving, and much in love, parents as they agonize over Ursula's fate. The more we learn about Justin and Annie the more likeable they are and the more unbearable a tragic ending would be. Hill, however, insists "all story is also back-story, the underside of the iceberg explains what we see above."
Each of the historical episodes, which alternate with further instalments in the main action (including rather more conventional back-story), is an absorbing stand-alone story featuring direct ancestors of little Ursula, but it isn't essential to buy the philosophical point Hill is making about this connectivity - and, indeed, I don't.