Ron Fritsch grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. He graduated from the University of Illinois and Harvard Law School. He lives in Chicago with his partner of many years, David Darling. Fritsch has published eight novels.
“[T]he action moves quickly, and there are enough surprises to keep readers hooked to the end.”
– Kirkus Reviews
Ophelia offers the true story behind what caused things to turn rotten in the state of Denmark in this postmodern take on Hamlet.
Fritsch’s (Cordelia Lionheart, 2018, etc.) work opens with an event labeled The Visit, which turns out to be King Fortinbras’ meeting with Ophelia, who had long been believed to be dead, at her cottage. Over the course of their conversation, which moves back and forth through time to follow the primary characters of Shakespeare’s play—Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio, and Ophelia herself, the eponymous daughter—the duplicitous nature of court life under the senior Hamlet and then Claudius is laid out. While Denmark starts a calamitous war with Norway, which is how Fortinbras enters the story, Ophelia and Horatio take note of the castle’s intrigues, discovering many secrets along the way and putting their free time to good use. It isn’t necessary to be familiar with Hamlet to enjoy Fritsch’s tale, but readers who know the Bard’s work will have a greater appreciation for the changes. Rather than a pitiable character driven mad by unrealized longing, this Ophelia is a strong, intelligent force who moves to improve her fate, as befitting the title character of the narrative. Purists may view these characterizations with distaste—no royal except for Fortinbras is portrayed in any way close to positively, for example, although Gertrude is given more agency here than in the play—but Fritsch deploys his changes with a sure hand, setting their behavior in a context that makes sense for the time. The narrative’s structure precludes suspense, but the story unfolds in a clear, straightforward fashion, with a solid grasp of where all the plot pieces are at any time. Much of the dialogue is rendered in an anachronistic fashion, with profanity that reads more 21st century than the period when the original play was written, which will occasionally jar readers. But the language gives the characters an immediacy and relatability that more classical portrayals sometimes lack and largely fits into the author’s feminist revamping.
Despite anachronistic language, this inventive retelling of Hamlet resonates through clear plotting and strong characterization.
Pub Date: Dec. 3, 2019
Page count: 156pp
Review Posted Online: Feb. 7, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020
A righteous daughter reclaims her father’s kingdom in this rendition of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Cordelia, 16-year-old daughter of Britain’s King Lear, opens this debut novel by vigorously applying her knee to the groin of Mundred, bastard son of the earl of Gloucester and would-be rapist, the first of her many attacks on toxic masculinity. She’s the innocent eye of a hurricane of ambition and treachery. Her elder sisters, Regan and Goneril, hatch rival plans to maneuver their respective husbands, the dukes of Cornwall and Albany, into seizing the throne. Both women also take the loathsome Mundred as a lover. Mundred orchestrates his own rise to power by murdering Gloucester, Cornwall, and Albany and raising a revolt against Lear, who placates him by naming Cordelia heir to the throne and promising him her hand. Alarmed at Mundred’s machinations, Cordelia vents increasingly strident indignation at Lear’s dithering refusal to punish him, and their relationship gets really nasty. (Father: “You’re a whore. And so was your mother.” Daughter: “I should hope my mother was a whore. I should hope she enjoyed making you a cuckold.”) Lear duly disinherits Cordelia and abdicates his crown to Regan and Goneril, which precipitates more bloodshed and war—and here the tale veers from dynastic melodrama into populist crusade. Cordelia, accompanied by Mundred’s sexy but passive half brother, Garred, goes to live among the peasantry and launches a class struggle—“The lives and happiness of working people depend upon their being secure in the ownership of the property they’ve accumulated through their labor,” she declaims—against aristocratic privilege. Fritsch’s ambitious version of the Lear saga has a raucous feminist energy to it, especially as the brash Cordelia develops a zest for slitting the throats of male miscreants. Unfortunately, the characters feel like cardboard—Regan and Goneril are cartoonishly bitchy; Mundred is a transparent psychopath; and Lear is simply a dunce for not heeding everyone’s advice to hang the monstrous villain—and the dialogue is not exactly poetic (“I wish to tell every other person in this kingdom what they may and may not do,” chortles Goneril). Readers who love the original may want to stick with it.
A boisterous retread of the Bard’s classic, minus the elegant writing and psychological complexity.
Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2018
Page count: 195pp
Publisher: Asymmetric Worlds
Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020
Fritsch (Elizabeth Daleiden on Trial, 2016, etc.) unfurls a tortured familial epic set in an Illinois farming community.
Henry, the titular grandfather and patriarch of the Reinhart family, has a long, infamous history in the rural farming community where his father settled in the previous century. Henry’s brazen, lifelong ambition to take over every farm on the section of land where he was born, and to “never again have to share a fence with another human being,” makes members of the community—and his own family—suspect him of many crimes, including the murder of his own brother. His steadfast refusal to attend the local church and his continued acquisition of his neighbors’ farms by various, sometimes-dubious means doesn’t help his case. By the time he comes to care for his only grandson, Kurt Reinhart, in one of the houses on his land in 1947, he and his clan are seen as pariahs. Kurt lives and works alongside his stubborn but surprisingly open-minded grandfather; later, he investigates the violent rumors about his birthright while also coming to terms with his own homosexuality and the sexual repression in his family. Fritsch will still maintain readers’ interest with his sheer storytelling verve, as he brings vivid specificity to his fully imagined world. His folksy, easygoing style belies the painful secrets and violence at the heart of the novel and renders the bloodstained and tragic narrative much lighter and easier to read than it has any right to be. However, the ambitious tale occasionally gets muddled amid the minutiae of Reinhart family’s history and an exhausting cavalcade of thinly drawn secondary characters. The dialogue is also often tin-eared and exposition-heavy, and none of the characters speaks in a way that’s dissimilar to the narrator.
A confident, if occasionally exhausting, familial and historical epic, coupled with a tender bildungsroman.
Pub Date: Nov. 16, 2017
Page count: 244pp
Publisher: Asymmetric Worlds
Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020
Fritsch’s (Promised Valley Peace, 2013, etc.) historical legal drama reveals the seamy underbelly of a small Illinois farming community.
Jonah Neumeyer, a young gay lawyer living in Chicago in 1977, was 6 years old in 1955 when he witnessed a traumatic house fire in Revere, Illinois, that apparently killed two elderly men. He’s remembered a comment from one of the onlookers ever since, as the charred bodies were brought out by the firemen: “Those two old queers got what they deserved.” Now Jonah has returned to his hometown to find out if that fire was set intentionally. The first step is to speak with the recently widowed Elizabeth Daleiden, who lived in the neighboring house—and who inherited the men’s farm after their deaths. Jonah believes that Elizabeth is hiding something, but he doesn’t anticipate that their conversation will get back to Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, Olivia Daleiden, a nasty, vengeful woman who accuses her of murdering not only the two men, but also Elizabeth’s father in 1950. Somewhat improbably, the Concord County state’s attorney, Tanner Howland, smells the potential for a big-trial victory that will propel his political ambitions; he successfully obtains indictments, and the stage is set for Elizabeth’s takedown. As the unorthodox trial proceeds—with witnesses allowed to expound endlessly without objection—it reveals a veritable Peyton Place of back stories, in which everyone in Revere seems to have connections with everyone else. Fritsch saddles himself with an ambitious task by jumping into the well-trod territory of courtroom dramas. However, the trial is only a vehicle for his examination of small-town prejudices, especially regarding gays and lesbians. He kindly provides a list of characters upfront so readers can keep track of them all, and some of the walk-on players are engaging. That said, most of the real character development is limited to Jonah and Elizabeth; the rest of the players are mostly just divided into good guys or bad. Still, the action moves quickly, and there are enough surprises to keep readers hooked to the end.
Big-city life has nothing on small-town shenanigans in this often enjoyable read with a serious message.
Pub Date: July 30, 2016
Page count: 216pp
Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2016
In this fourth and final novel in Fritsch’s (Promised Valley Conspiracy, 2012, etc.) series, a sweeping new kind of warfare threatens an ancient valley and its peoples.
The valley’s rich farmland has for generations been a zone of contention between the farmers of the valley and the hunters of the less-inviting surrounding hills. Each side draws on a long tradition of beliefs assuring them that the gods intended the valley for their people and no others. Through three novels full of tension, betrayal and catastrophic warfare, the farmers and hunters have tried exchanging high-ranking hostages with each other in hopes of ensuring good behavior on both sides. One such move sends handsome, heroic Blue Sky to live among the hill people and eventually fall in love with one of them, a man named Wandering Star. The novel convincingly depicts a society in which homosexual relationships are conducted openly with no lessening of public esteem, and Fritsch handles the theme with a no-fuss skill reminiscent of Mary Renault’s. Another narrative thread follows the sarcastic agnosticism of the younger Promised Valley generation, which may be a satisfying innovation for 21st-century readers. Blue Sky, Wandering Star, and their various allies and enemies also contend with the introduction of horses as beasts of war in the valley’s latest conflagration. Fritsch tells a very detailed, very human story, although the opening 10 pages, a stultifying, bullet-point plot summary of the previous books in the series, may alienate new readers. Some of the book’s younger characters admirably seek to forge a real, lasting peace in their lifetimes, and the interminable threat of war allows Fritsch to make the conflict an allegory for every human conflict to come. There’s a sad moment of irony when a character late in the book hopes that their peoples will “never go to war again.”
A wise, bittersweet conclusion to a sprawling tale of prehistoric war and peace.
Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2013
Page count: 274pp
Review Posted Online: Jan. 3, 2014
The multipart saga set in a lush prehistoric valley continues.
The third volume in Fritsch’s Promised Valley series (Promised Valley War, 2012) explores the ongoing conflict between the valley people, who are prosperous farmers occupying all the richest Promised Valley lands, and the hill people, who inhabit the sparser uplands and live bitterly, believing that their gods promised the valley and its comforts to them. Since the valley people have a similar belief about themselves, a state of dangerous friction exists between the two groups. Savage warfare and desperate diplomacy marked the well-orchestrated events of the first two books, and tensions continue to boil to the surface in this volume. Blue Sky, a stalwart valley person (and one of the most memorable characters of the entire series) says at one point, “Fighting in a war is the most disgusting thing a person can do. People in their right mind can’t do it.” Nevertheless, plenty of such fighting threatens the fragile peace in this latest volume, in which the enemies trade numerous hostages in an effort by both sides to stop the cycle of distrust and bloodshed. And although there’s war, there’s also tolerance: As with the previous two books, the author presents us with a prehistoric society that places no stigma on being gay—key male characters have not only wives or intended wives but male lovers as well. The author attempts to make the various plotlines accessible to new readers, but the books lose some dramatic heft if not read in order. Still, the narrative impact is vividly realized in any case: These books continue to be an intelligent and involving look at the personal sacrifices of making war and keeping peace.
Another well-done excursion into Jean Auel territory.
Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2012
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: Asymmetric Worlds
Review Posted Online: Feb. 25, 2013
War erupts in a peaceful prehistoric valley.
Tensions were already brewing in Fritsch's Promised Valley Rebellion (2010), in which a group of young people living in the relatively benign and loosely organized prehistoric community of Promised Valley rebelled against their king and his council in reaction to a seemingly arbitrary, tyrannical ruling the king had made. That rebellion revolved around the hidden past of Rose Leaf, the beautiful young daughter of war-hero farmer Green Field, and it led to war with the hill people whose marauding ways are a constant threat to the inhabitants of Promised Valley. In Fritsch's latest novel (which is given depth by a reading of the first book but can be enjoyed as a stand-alone book), despite the best efforts of that same group of young people, war between the valley people and the hill people has erupted again. The author’s well-rendered descriptions of the creeping onslaught of war and winter give the reader a visceral feel for the endangered paradise that can occur despite the best intentions of the best people, and readers will be surprised by the twists he gives his tale. Alongside the careful plotting and natural-sounding dialogue, there's a refreshing amount of deeper resonances in the Promised Valley series, a steady undercurrent of commentary of the present day. The treatment of the young hero Blue Sky's attraction to other men, for instance, is straightforward but nonconfrontational, and characters at several points grapple with their society's primitive theology. “Could gods who were good-hearted … allow humans to go to war with one another?” the narrative at one point asks. “[I]f they, like humans, had no choice in the matter, why did humans call them gods?” The novel will leave readers eager to find out what happens next in Promised Valley. Luckily, Fritsch has plans to add two more volumes to the series.
A captivating novel that will transport readers back to prehistory times—while reminding them of their own.
Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2011
Page count: 242pp
Publisher: Asymmetric Worlds
Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012
Fritsch’s debut novel is a Paleolithic adventure in the manner of Jean Auel.
The story is very likely as old as human civilization: a younger generation comes of age, feels frustrated by its elders and rebels, bringing conflict, debate and even violence. The author gives readers little in the way of precise historical details about Promised Valley and its people: there are farmers, city dwellers and a court ruled by a royal family and run by bureaucratic tellers, but the events could be taking place almost anywhere in the world, in virtually any of the first few million years that followed the opening of the Pleistocene. This narrative imprecision is part of the point: when Tall Oak, the king, forbids his heir Morning Sun to marry the daughter of a farmer—and when this decision brings division and violence to his kingdom—the story encourages the reader to ponder the universal elements of the tale (the character names encourage the same thing, although after 100 pages of Spring Rain, Green Field and Noon Breeze, readers may want a quick-reference character list, which the book sadly lacks). In other hands, this could result in some quite dreary reading, but Fritsch again and again saves his parable by granting his characters an easy, unforced humanity that is instantly inviting. His people may have generic names, but they sound like individuals, and that makes all the difference. At one point, Blue Sky talks about how lucky two of his friends are not to be royalty: “Anybody who isn’t the prince should be glad he isn’t,” he says. “Someday Morning Sun will have to order people killed. Valley Defender and Solemn Promise won’t. We won’t.” Moments like that are plentiful, and they make the story memorable.
A strange, primitive world that feels winningly real.
Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2010
Page count: 270pp
Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2010
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