Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vinegar Hill - A Review

It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill - a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine -- where calculated cruelty is a way of life preserved and perpetuated in the service of a rigid, exacting and angry God. Behind a facade of false piety, there are sins and secrets in this place that could crush a vibrant young woman's passionate spirit. And here Ellen must find the strength to endure, change, and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.

This story is tragic, bitter and vengeful but at the end, you have no other choice but to empathize with the characters. They were all victims; products of sad and unfortunate circumstances. I have to admit, when i completed this book i felt heavy like i had absorbed all of Ellen's troubles, her concerns and fears. It took me a little while to remove myself from the book, evidence that the story engrosses you.

Most of the characters were woven with a negative element; regret, hatred, sadness, emptiness, loss of innocence. Yet, these elements did not feel strange or displaced because the author meant them to be apart of the reality of living in a small, tight-knitted, religious based community.

I really like how the characters were constructed by the author. She used similarities between them to help place some of the stories in perspective. For example James and his mother Mary Margaret, shared similar characteristic straits and by extension similar stories. James and his brother Mitch shared the same story as Mary Margaret and Salomie. Ellen grows to realize that she shares a similar story to Ann. It is this aspect of circularity that really helps to cement the stories of these characters.

At times i felt frustrated with the setting of the book. Reading it in a modern setting, as a young independent woman and knowing all the things that i want in life, i felt like Ellen was foolish for feeling guilty for wanting those same exact things. But then again the story was set in the 1970's when values were much different to how they are now. Even the advice that Barb gives her seems like a novel idea in that setting but to me made complete sense.

To lift the story or rather to add hope to it, the author uses the act of selfishness. In fact the theme is almost glorified in the way that Milton made the devil look like a tragic hero. Ann, Ellen and Barb felt like their only hope was to be selfish and to do what they had to, to survive. Sometimes it came across as harsh but when you weight it against the situations that each character faced, selfishness really seemed like the most logical option. Indeed it was the only way for Ellen to be triumphant in the end.

There were a few quotes that stood out for me in this book. Here are some of them to wet your appetite.

"The house is as rigid, as precise as a church, and there was nothing to disturb its ways until three months ago, when Ellen and James and the children moved in...." pg5

"There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean." pg16

"No one gets used to anything, they just get numb. That's what's happening to you. You let him get away with anything he wants, him and his parents too." pg142

"Perhaps Mary-Margaret once stood beneath a night sky like this one, but she stood in one place so long that not even Ann could save her." pg 236

I really enjoy this book and i hope that by reading this post, you too will give it a read.

Your partner in reading,



bermudaonion said...

This sounds so good! I think my sister has it - if she does, I'll borrow it from her.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Hey, good review - thanks! Yes, Ansay certainly has a knack for writing sad characters, which is ironic since Ansay herself is about as cheerful and fun as they come. I had her for a creative writing seminar in college, and couldn't wait for every class! The only time she was negative was when she was critiquing my awful writing. :)

Cool blog, too - just found you and am following now.

mike draper said...

"Vinegar Hill" sounds like it would be an enjoyable read.
Nice review.

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