blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Ursula, Under, by Ingrid Hill
                  (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004)

An early chapter of Ursula, Under presents a deaf, mute caravan lieutenant, trying to convince the master that his wares will sell:

Object. Tells. Story. The master nods even more soberly. You. Tell. Wonderful. Story. The master's nod is almost imperceptible. . . . "Ah," he says . . . "You're suggesting that what will fetch enormous prices for these . . . is in essence to soak them in stories first . . ."

It does not take an English major to connect this metaphor to the act of writing. What makes the comparison fresh, and gives it and so many other images in Ursula, Under meaning, is that it is connected to a character: two-and-a-half-year-old Ursula Wong, who falls down a mine shaft not twenty feet away from where her parents are watching. A dissipated socialite, who has carelessly and unknowingly crippled the child's mother years before, sees the rescue efforts on television and says, "All of that goddamn money and energy . . . Wasted . . . On that goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid." The novelist's response, as with the caravan lieutenant's, is with the rich, exotic stories, all connected to the child.

These begin with a Chinese alchemist in the third century B.C., one of Ursula's oldest ancestors. The stories go on to trace, with what seems to be perfect precision, an incredibly gorgeous and painful lineage, over the past two thousand years. Of course, the reader quickly realizes the trick that Ingrid Hill is playing—even if we are not as unfeeling as the crass socialite, we begin to understand that we, too, have underestimated the staggering importance of this child. The more we read, the more we realize what a loss, what a waste it would be if Ursula cannot be rescued from the mine shaft. If she does not come back up alive, there will be no more stories, no more characters will live and die with the majesty of the ones that we meet here.

The scope and artistic ambition of the novel alone are remarkable. The list of characters and their places of origin is like its own caravan of exotic goods: the ancient Chinese alchemist who neglects his wives and concubines in order to search for the key to immortality; a beautiful, deaf-mute Finnish girl who refracts a curse from a jealous village hag in the eighth century C.E.; a caravan lieutenant who travels the Silk Road in order to sell precious goods to the Finnish girl's father; the royal Minister of Maps, seventeenth-century China; a mustard-grower in gold-rush California; a Finnish miner's wife in nineteenth century Michigan, who has given up a child and moved to America after the death of her first husband, a college professor.

With titles like "The Alchemist's Last Concubine," "A Foundling at the Court," "A Wastrel Killed by a Snail," and "The Woman Who Married the Baker's Friend," these tales would be delightful by themselves, a tribute to the painful and lovely fairy stories of Isak Dinesen or A.S. Byatt. But they are not by themselves. Hill's ability to connect these seemingly random elements to the main story of Ursula and her immediate family, shows a control that makes us feel that we are in exceptionally capable hands. One such connection appears in the middle of a proposal scene in "The Caravan-Master's Lieutenant":

. . . in front of the fire he will make a betrothal gift to Kyllikki, a pair of ivory girdle brooches gotten in Ch'ang-an, which will become shoulder brooches for a merchant's daughter in the south of Finland. They are the circumference of the top of a pop can in Michigan over a millennium later, that Annie Wong set in the cup holder in Justin's truck as they drove out from Houghton, and they are carved of finest ivory.

Each of these faraway stories is liberally sprinkled with connective references like these, to remind us of why these tales are being told; they are also preceded and followed by chapters that tell more of the main story—Ursula, her family, and the rescue operation. These are equally engaging, helping us to know and understand the people that are waiting for Ursula to reappear—her parents, two grandparents, a member of the rescue team, and of course, the hateful rich bitch mentioned above. In this way, Hill never lets the reader get too far away from the urgency of the present moment. We are engaged in the present, yet content to wait for its outcome, as another piece of two-and-a-half-year-old Ursula's long history appears.

Hill's reputation for precise and enchanting language was established with her earlier collection of short stories, Dixie Church Interstate Blues (1989), a collection received mostly with appreciation, and a few reservations; and in stories that have appeared and been anthologized since that time. Many of these are set in the Deep South, a place similar to those in Ursula, Under only in its strange, otherworldly aura, and perhaps, too, in its ability to showcase beauty and pain together. Hill's departure from her former subjects makes her new work that much more impressive; her ability to evoke such unlikely places with authentic details convinces us that she knows what she's talking about. One passage describing gifts from the Catholic Church to the Emperor of China accomplishes this with remarkable ease:

. . . a unicorn's horn (taken, oddly enough, a decade before, from a rhinoceros on the African continent) . . . a clavichord no one in the Emperor's court could conceivably play . . . two different sand clocks . . . a tall, imposing clock in a fine carved wooden cabinet, with weights and a pendulum . . . a small, delicate gold-plated clock the height of a vase of spring flowers . . . no taller than the upraised ears of a palace-garden rabbit . . . carried ceremonially in the rosy gold light of dawn into the South Gate of the palace . . . the bait that caught the Emperor, like a fat palace goldfish, its diaphanous fins waving languidly, on Ricci's hook.

This disparity, as well as the vividness, of each place and time makes the novel even more pleasing. There is nothing trite or worn in the worlds that Hill creates, nothing that we have seen before.

Ursula, Under is a novel that does a rare thing—delights and teaches. We are so caught up in the writing, that we are largely unconscious of the lesson that comes through: that lives are made more precious because of other lives, and that we access these through well-told tales. Ursula, Under has had, up to now, a rather quiet, if steadily growing, national reception. We hope that readers who know a good thing when they see it—those who delight in caravans of precious objects, in discovering the unexpected value of things thought to be ordinary, will find their way into the lives in this book. They will not be disappointed.  

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