Judging by the perilous condition the publishing industry seems to be in these days, it's something of a miracle that this first novel by Rebecca Hill, an education writer from St. Cloud, Minn., got published at all. "Blue Rise" is not a thriller, nor a sleazy tale of ripped bodices, nor an opportunistic roman a clef. Which is to say that its commercial future is chancy at best. Yet, here it is, the debut of a writer worth reading on several counts.
"Blue Rise" is either deceptively simple or alarmingly difficult to summarize. To describe it as the journey of self-discovery of a 35-year-old one-time native of rural Blue Rise, Miss., trekking back through her past during a few days at the family homestead--that falls well short of the mark left by the novelist's sure-handed grip on style and insight and observation.
Sure, I suppose "Blue Rise" might be called a feminist novel, but that's really a curse that fits only an edge or two and that it far surpasses. Similarly, on another level, it could be construed as a reconsideration of Faulkner country 30 or 40 or 50 years later, with the grotesqueries muted, domesticated. But pigeon-holing "Blue Rise" is the least rewarding approach to the novel, because it is in fact so contemporary, so colloquial, so humorous, so painfully and deeply felt--so willing to deal with the overt, careworn elements of a more or less ordinary family's life.
Jeannine, the novel's narrator, grew up first in Blue Rise, then in Detroit, where she was smudged into Yankeeness, where her father was a successful businessman and--let it be said--an alcoholic, neurotically vicious brute. Her mother coped with him, survived him when early in his retirement back in Blue Rise he got drunk and perished during a midnight tractor ride; she now lives out her feisty widowhood sanctifying for herself, with the complicity of family and friends, his memory. Jeannine's own marriage of 10 years is on the rocks in Des Moines: She has returned to Blue Rise to sort through the portmanteau of memories and old friends, to evaluate the myths and prejudices that inevitably helped to form her, if only in her rebellion against them, and to confront her mother, the personification of a female posture that she must finally understand in order to reject successfully.
Blue Rise is the past and a place where Jeannine confronts the family picnics, the church services with the Bible-slamming preachers, the old friends who have coped with the demands of rural Mississippi and made their separate peaces, the courage and hateful desperation of her mother. She begins with a dry sense of irony, managing to withhold herself and observe the give and take, pinpointing the customs almost like a curious, well-meaning anthropologist among a group of hospitable primitives.
"It has always been clear that the women in mother's family go to some trouble to pick out deficient men to marry . . . Consider the lineup: Aunt Lottie . . . Aunt Bethany . . . My own mother . . . All these women are the daughters of a mother who was called in Jasper County 'Widow Groves'--though her perfectly sound husband was off in the next county sawing logs . . . She passed along her talent for choosing unsatisfactory husbands, and the trait survives all else, is virulent. Aunt Bethany's daughter Eola married a faithless charmer who deserted her and 'her' three girls fifteen years ago. But Eola would be scandalized at the notion of divorce; after all, Delbert Charles is her Husband. That comes with a capital H in these parts. My cousins Bernice, Pauline, and Felicia are the three daughters of that brief but consecrated union. They are nearly all into their twenties now and are married (respectively) to a pyromaniac, a drunkard and a cripple."
It is Jeannine's deeply troubled marriage to Larry that is the litmus that tests her ties to Blue Rise; because it is the subservience, gratitude, loyalty a Blue Rise wife owes her husband that defines the matrices of social interaction, which is the very fabric of Blue Rise life. Jeannine finds in the agonized analysis of her parents' relationship, and in the "happy" marriage of her girlhood friend Carrie Dean to a second-rate philanderer, that this key--the sanctity of marriage and family, whatever the cost--is a pathetic, destructive lie. It is not the marriages that cement the social contract of Blue Rise but the pretense, the accepted lie.
In the irony and objectivity Jeannine brings to the subject of her collapsing marriage, "Blue Rise" is at its considerable best. There is no clash of villain and heroine, no bludgeoning of one partner with the whining and whimpering of the other: instead, there is anger and frustration, and the realization of one's own inescapable responsibility for the messes that inevitably decorate the paths of all our lives.
The journey backwards and then forwards on which Rebecca Hill sends Jeannine is eminently worth taking. "Blue Rise" is a wonderful, illuminating piece of work.