I had asked my
Editor if I might review DROWNING RUTH before I knew the book would
receive Oprah's imprimatur, so I'm going to try to ignore that ---
even though it's a little like trying to ignore an elephant. I
asked for the book several weeks ago because I'd been told it was
"somewhat historical, somewhat a mystery, with a literary
Well, that description is and is not true; the part that isn't true
is the "somewhat." There is nothing the least bit somewhat
about DROWNING RUTH. Furthermore, the book's literariness is not an
edge, but rather like a constant drone bass that grounds the book
throughout. It is the author's skill that keeps the whole thing
together, that keeps the words from flying off the pages and us
readers from flying off after them, as lost as poor Ruth who
insists right on page one that she once drowned. And, we are told,
she keeps on insisting.
There is a steady talent at work here, and the fact that this is
Christina Schwarz's first novel is astounding. I look forward to
the many interviews that Oprah's choice will surely bring (see, I
told you that elephant would be hard to ignore), because I want to
know more about this young author. The dust jacket tells us only
that she grew up in Wisconsin and now lives with her husband in Los
Angeles, and that is not nearly enough to tell us how she got to
write this way.
The novel takes place in the period from the close of the First
World War, around 1917, through the late 1930s, before the
beginning of the Second World War. The setting is rural Wisconsin
near the Great Lakes, the nearest being Lake Superior, a scary
place that has swallowed many a huge boat --- for example the
Edmund Fitzgerald, about which Gordon Lightfoot wrote a folk
ballad many will recall. Much of that atmosphere comes through
here, though things are not always so dark.
The small town and farm where Ruth grows up with her Aunt Amanda,
and her father Carl, and their handyman Rudy, has its own small
lake that is described as very beautiful, like a sapphire in the
summers when the sky is blue, beautiful enough that eventually ---
about midway through the book --- much of the land around the lake
is sold as resort property to newly rich families from the cities.
Ruth's family property, a working farm on the opposite shore,
includes an island that Amanda, all her life, has regarded as her
own special place.
Yet the atmosphere of this small town and its lake is disturbed,
and not by the intrusion of the newly rich. They come in
summertimes only, blunderingly innocent, to a place where families
like Amanda's long ago learned to live with the ominousness of
harsh winters and the heaviness of their secrets. There are certain
things people don't tell, they grow up knowing they mustn't, they
don't need to be taught, they breathe it in with the air. You don't
tell, not even if it drives you mad. The summer visitors, by
contrast, are like children, with no more understanding of what
goes on around them than the summer child Arthur, who discovered
Ruth's mother drowned under the ice of the lake when he was only
five years old.
Arthur's father Clement Owen, a developer, inventor, and blunderer
without peer, is first to see the possibilities of the lake as a
resort property --- and through one of those coincidences that
happen in real life even more often than they do in books, Owen
happens to have known Ruth's Aunt Amanda before. He called her Amy.
She was a pretty nurse then, in a city hospital during the War.
When Amanda returned to the family farm she certainly thought she
would never see him again, and he thought the same. Arthur's father
didn't know his Amy lived on the other side of the lake.
But, these things happen.
DROWNING RUTH moves constantly from the voice of one character to
another, and shifts back and forth in time and place with
disturbing frequency; yet somehow you always know where you are and
who is speaking. That's this author's sure hand at work. Christina
Schwarz writes with a deceptive simplicity that is occasionally
elegant. I say "deceptive" because true simplicity is never easily,
nor painlessly, achieved --- in writing or in anything else.
Consider, for example, this description of Carl, the father,
holding his daughter Ruth for the first time: "Ruth arrived with
the slush of spring. She was light, buoyant even, and yet when the
midwife first shifted the tiny bundle into his arms he felt as if
he might drop her, so heavy was she with helplessness, with the
need to be protected at all costs."
The plot, roughly, is about the coming of age of Ruth, who once
drowned. Yet this is really a novel about the burden and
consequences of keeping secrets, in families, and in towns, and in
one's own heart.
To tell more would be to give too much away. You must read it for
yourself, and bear it for yourself.
Reviewed by Dianne Day, who is a novelist whose most recent book, BEACON STREET MOURNING, is also an October release from Doubleday. on January 21, 2011