By Ingrid Hill. Algonquin. 477 pp. $24.95
Think Big Novel and visions of sweeping, intersecting narratives, multiple points of view and a kaleidoscopic collection of characters -- the wider the spectrum, the better -- swirl before you. Readers who wade in might let out an "Aha!" or two of pleasure as they figure out the inner logic.
For first-time novelist Ingrid Hill, such flashy artifice is passe. 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 1/2-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.
The author gives away her story's artistic raison d'etre in the first 13 pages. Ursula is the much-loved, over-protected daughter of a multiracial couple trying to offer her the solid home they were denied as children. The three of them live in a trailer in Michigan's rural upper peninsula.
Her father, Justin Wong, a half-Chinese/half-Polish gutter cleaner and musician, carries the sting of his itinerant, harmonica-playing father's abandonment. Annie Maki, Ursula's librarian mom, escaped from an alcoholic father not long after her loving mother died. Annie, forced to use a walker because of a bike accident when she was 10, is searching deeper for her family's American roots. She scopes out former mining towns in the peninsula to get a firsthand look at where her great-grandfather, a Finnish emigre, died in a cave-in long ago.
During one of Annie's quests, history possibly repeats itself, or at least rhymes in the most discordant way imaginable. Ursula runs alongside a remote road and decides to chase a deer into the woods; then, in a blink, she's gone "like a penny into the slot of a bank." At this point the author seemingly drops both shoes, stopping just short of metafiction to make her story's point transparent and then explain how she will tell it. "Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?" asks Jinx Muhlenberg, the story's malevolent floozy, as Ursula's plight becomes fodder for 24-hour national news networks. Annie unknowingly answers her: "So many generations, back into history and then prehistory, all concentrated into this one little girl." As Ursula is involuntarily planted deep within Michigan, the story becomes her roots, a genealogy of the characters who all "concentrated" to become her.
With surprise and artifice out of the way, Hill instead astounds with her ability to meld simply and beautifully told stories, stories with an air of fable about them, with contemporary tales of the Wongs and Makis. Latter-day stories contain glints of Ursula's long-ago forebears -- Justin inherited a crooked finger from a Chinese alchemist who lived two millennia ago, for example.
But Hill knows that history is the triumph of narrative. She pours most of her energies into painstakingly reconstructing historical sets -- a Chinese town, a Swedish king's court, an immigrants' mining camp. She then peoples them with vibrant, thoughtful beings who remind us that so much of what troubles the soul today -- religious searching, the quest for truth, the brutality and greed of humanity -- long vexed the minds of our forefathers.
Some of the characters would work as main players in novels of their own. There's Marjatta Karajamaki, another Finnish emigre to Michigan, who bakes cakes with ground glass to entice rats to their deaths and whose newborn appears dead for minutes before she commands it to life, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There's Violeta, a foundling Finnish girl who, through absurd circumstance, becomes the best friend of a Swedish princess and is then cast off because of the princess's jealousy of her. And there's Ming Tao, a disabled Chinese girl who frustrates her father and a Jesuit missionary with her endless questioning and rich intellect. Her method of insemination -- by means of a "gift" from a priest and a meat baster -- is one of many examples of Hill's belief in "miracles" and unlikely births that are neither evangelical nor hokey.
Ultimately, Hill embraces a crucial Big Novel component. Her book asks, and at length answers, a Big Question: What is a life worth? The miracle of Ursula, Under is that it reminds us that while a good story -- told with all the weight of the world and through skeins of time -- might not be as indispensable as a beloved child, it can relate the value of that child, and through its narrative gift help us recall why life is worth the trouble. *
Michael Anft is a journalist and critic who lives in Baltimore.