Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin, 2005
  • Price: $14.00
  • ISBN-10: 0143035452
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035459

If I have for some time now been reading books to illuminate the meaning of life, here was a break to turn that coin on its other side and ask of its value. To ponder meaning, after all, assumes life has value. And if it does, are all of our lives to be valued equally?

When 2 1/2-year-old Ursula falls into an old mine shaft in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, media and curiosity seekers swarm the scene, and not one alone asks about the mixed race child born of poor parents - is she worth saving? How much investment and effort is one such child worth?

Ingrid Hill, in this debut novel, explores the question of one life's value by going back into history, traveling the long and complex limbs of a family tree, to an ancestry of two thousand years and a genealogy that contains within it royalty and peasants, slaves and alchemists, immigrants and miners. Little Ursula's ethnic roots wind through China, Sweden, Finland, Poland, traveling over land and oceans, passing through the courts of royalty with as much intrigue as through the tents and barracks of immigrants, until the two branches of her parents' families, the Wongs and the Makis, finally meet to create this child. In one tiny child: the spans of millenia and the bloodlines of countless generations. Such is the value of one human life, that it contains the lives of many, and these many are intertwined by all who have ever lived, all across the globe, a concentration of all humanity and all the characteristics and traits, good and evil, therein. Every life, we soon see, is a vessel holding all that has been and all that will be.

To hold so many threads in the plotting of a novel such as this, author Ingrid Hill has accomplished a no less than amazing feat, her writing skill already at such a level of artistry that it is nearly impossible to imagine how she might top this stellar debut. Yet, realizing what value, what hidden treasure and untold promise our bloodlines may contain, why not? Indeed, every stop along the way in this novel beckons a novel of its own.

I first picked up this book for the very simple reason that its story frame was out of the Keweenaw, a place I too once lived, my own storyline weaving through the area, holding now my own personal bits and pieces of hidden treasure. But if my expectations were simple enough, seeking but a pleasurable revisiting to the warming of nostalgia, Ingrid Hill astounded me with her range and reach, her skill and her sense of beauty combined with deeper meaning, winning me over with a standing ovation by the turning of the final page. Ursula, Under proved to be not only an excellent story well told, but a masterpiece of literary artistry that now tops my list of all-time favorite books.

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