Summary and book reviews of Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill

Ursula, Under

by Ingrid Hill

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

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Book Summary

Ursula's story echoes those of her ancestors, many of whom so narrowly escaped not being born that her very existence—like ours—comes to seem a miracle. Ambitious and accomplished, Ursula, Under is, most of all, wonderfully entertaining—a daring saga of culture, history, and heredity.

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 trailer-trash kid."

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 person—little Ursula Wong.

Ursula's story echoes those of her ancestors, many of whom so narrowly escaped not being born that her very existence—like ours—comes to seem a miracle. Ambitious and accomplished, Ursula, Under is, most of all, wonderfully entertaining—a daring saga of culture, history, and heredity.

1
Ursula

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
"Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?"

This question, posed in the first chapter of Ursula, Under, spills venomously from the lips of the inebriated Jinx Muehlenberg as her television beams to her the unfolding story of two-and-a-half-year-old Ursula Wong. Hours earlier, Ursula's Chinese-American father Justin and her Finnish-American mother Annie watched in disbelief as she disappeared down an abandoned mine shaft. Now, as Ursula lies silent beneath the earth, the reader is given an elaborate answer to Jinx's unfeeling query. We learn to care about Ursula, not merely because she is young, innocent, and beloved by ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Anft

Ursula, Under - Hill's great big novel - ditches organizational showiness in favor of a directness that puts all the weight of judgment on stories of ancients and moderns, waifs and royals, the ascetic and the damned. Primarily the tale of Ursula Wong, a 2-year-old who has fallen down an abandoned mine shaft, the novel shows Hill is up to the formidable task of delivering on her unpretentious modus operandi.

Kirkus Reviews

Wildly uneven, awesomely ambitious: a mess, in fact, but you can't help but be impressed by the author's commitment and boldness.

Publishers Weekly

Unwieldy but inventive, this is a promising debut.

Library Journal - Ann H. Fisher

Hill's mosaic-like telling underlies the impact of Ursula's plight and her parents' anguish, finally leading the reader to an understanding of the unique value of each individual. This should do well in public libraries; warmly recommended.

Booklist - Deborah Donovan

In an elaborate "six degrees of separation" game, the author reveals centuries-old ties between relatives of both Annie and Justin, creating a magically entertaining, poetic, and heartfelt look at the often overlooked significance of extended family.

Author Blurb Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife
Extravagant and absorbing ... I didn't want it to end.

Reader Reviews

Judy

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 ...   Read More

James Blacklock

Promising Debut
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...   Read More

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