Ursula Under, Nov 04 | Ingrid Hill Explores a Child’s Far-flung Ancestry


Ingrid Hill, who lives with her family in Iowa City, earned a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Iowa. Photo by Andrew Schmidt.

In Ingrid Hill’s debut novel, Ursula, Under, the eponymous two-year-old character falls down an abandoned mine shaft, disappearing before her horrified parents’ eyes. As you might expect, the efforts to save the little girl are at the heart of the novel. But this is no ordinary suspense novel; this rescue begins thousands of years before little Ursula plummets into the earth.

Ursula has quite a back story and Hill takes the reader on an in-depth tour of her family history over the course of Ursula, Under. Spending time with a host of Ursula’s ancestors from around the world and throughout history is a delight in and of itself as Hill renders each tale with care and a clear sympathy and respect for nearly all of her characters. But each story also enhances the drama of Ursula’s perilous situation because she represents the potential end of a remarkable line. Losing Ursula, the novel suggests, would mean losing these textured, hard-fought lives that have led to her birth.

The idea of a single child representing a family’s entire history is an intriguing locus for a novel written by a woman with 12 children. For Hill, however, Ursula is a symbol of each child’s individuality.

“I may have 12 children,” she explained in a phone interview from her home in Iowa City, “but each one of them is individually unique . . . . If I had 77 children they would each be unique. . . . I was thinking of a remark I have heard when a couple loses a child: ‘They’re young. They can have another one.’ Yes, they can have another one, but this child is never going to come again.”

Each story in Ursula, Under highlights how tenuous a family line can be. The trip through time presented a writing challenge for Hill.

“I thought, Can I really pull this off—a scope of time that broad and deep? The suspension of disbelief is required again and again with each new set of characters. Most novels, I think, require only one blanket suspension of disbelief.”

Hill draws the reader into each story successfully, however, in part because the connection between each tale is so strongly established. The narrative occurs in what Hill calls the “eternal present” and the simultaneity of time is a major theme. Throughout the novel, characters have anachronistic experiences—as when one character hears the strains of Beethoven’s sixth symphony hundreds of years before it is composed (a detail resulting from a well-timed coffee break spent listening to KSUI)—that lead to a reexamination of time.

That reexamination led Hill to an interesting conclusion. Ursula may not be the main character of Ursula, Under; rather, time itself may fill that roll. “We’re getting to know time in a way we haven’t before,” she said. Hill pushes the envelope on this idea, occasionally revealing not only long threads of surprisingly connected history, but also “alternate” histories that didn’t happen but might have. Those passages call particular attention to themselves, but generally the device is handled with grace within the context of the growing narrative.

In addition to Ursula and the mysteries of time, the character Jinx is also central to the book. Her nickname fairly describes her role in the novel. Connected to Ursula and her family in a surprising number of ways—unknown to all parties concerned—Jinx is the novel’s one “truly evil-hearted” character.

“She caused me so much grief,” Hill said. She struggled to find the right way to close Jinx’s story. “Jinx had to come to some resolution that was her own doing. . . . [My] characters are themselves . . . . The truths of human nature have to play out.” While Jinx is not redeemed in the traditional sense, Hill never abandons her compassion for her most malevolent character, in part, no doubt, because it was the “voice” of Jinx that first gave the author her sense of the book she would write.

In her mind’s eye, Hill saw a little girl created equally from parts of her own blond, blue-eyed daughter and her full-Chinese godchild fall down a hole. At that moment she “heard” Jinx say, “Why are they wasting all this time and money on this half-breed, trailer-trash kid?” Ursula, Under is the eloquent answer to that question.

Along the way, Hill also explores the various ways disabilities can affect a life. Afflicted in a variety of ways, Hill’s characters consistently work with or around their disabilities—as well as the mores of the time and place in which they find themselves—as they call on inner resources. “I wanted to show each of these people as special, but from the inside,” she said. She does a fine job getting the reader inside her characters’ heads to see through their eyes.

Those eyes may be a bit misty by novel’s end and Hill may be forgiven if the narrative’s long-supported suspension of disbelief begins to fray just a tad in the novel’s closing pages. Ursula, Under rewards careful reading with a series of delightful, moving stories that make us care even more about the girl in the mine shaft.