The plot goes like this: in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a little girl, Ursula, falls down an abandoned mine shaft and must be rescued. But wait, this is NOT a disaster book. Instead, it is the story of the circumstances that led up to this event, beginning (believe it or not) in earliest history with Ursula's ancestors in ancient China and Scandinavia, and continuing through time up to the present. Hill spotlights some of the different people who have contributed to Ursula's lineage and current predicament; these include a Chinese nobleman, a French missionary, Finnish copper miners, and an alcoholic real estate saleswoman. Chapters about these characters alternate with chapters about Ursula and her parents.
In an earlier brief post about this book I said this: According to this book, who we are, and everything we experience is a synthesis of everyone who came before us and all that has happened to each and every one of our ancestors and predecessors on earth. As I read this book I was reminded of the opening pages of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, which I reviewed earlier this year. Bryson says:
To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune….Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous….every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so.
The author does not try to describe all of recorded history, but instead has chosen her stories judiciously. She names each ancestor chapter with a pithy epithet. Thus Ursula’s ancestors include characters such as The Alchemist’s Last Concubine, The Caravan-Master’s Lieutenant, A Foundling at the Court, and A Wastrel Killed by a Snail. Hill’s creativity and boundless imagination drive this book forward and in and around itself in a fascinating dance. The omniscient narrator links the characters to one another in unexpected ways, and illustrates the good luck and perseverance that one needs just to end up alive right now. The chapters set in the present, where Ursula is trapped underground, effectively describe the agonizing wait for rescue, yet never veer into the sensational.
Was this book a tiny bit too long? Perhaps. It did take me a long time to read it. Yet I can’t imagine what Hill could have cut. The length itself makes an important point: much has come before, and it took a long time to get here.
Here is a link to the Penguin Reading Guide for this book.
(Book 52, 2006)