VINEGAR HILL by A. Manette Ansay


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First-time author Ansay, a 1992 recipient of the Nelson Algren Prize, subjects her readers to a small-town family's legacy of abuse and despair. In 1972, Jimmy and Ellen Grier, a young couple with two children, move back to their German-American rural Wisconsin hometown and into the oppressive house of Jimmy's parents, a bitter couple who allow no joy or warmth at their hearth. Ellen longs to leave, but Jimmy refuses to budge, maintaining that he knows what is best for his family, which includes reverting to a kid in the presence of his mother, Mary-Margaret, and a defenseless sap in front of his abusive father, Fritz. To his children, Jimmy is an eccentric, distant man, and they are most comfortable when he is away selling farm equipment for clays or weeks at a time; then they can steal some moments alone with their mother and give in to their inherent good natures. The early chapters are almost unbearable to read, as vulnerable Ellen is forced by convention into an unhappy life. The pain only intensifies as the narrative reveals the stories of Mary-Margaret, her sister Salome, Jimmy, and his twin brothers who died at birth; we see that the family's regressive behavior can be attributed to Fritz's brutality. Ellen's defense is to take prescription pills that numb her. She almost becomes another victim until she learns about an audacious act once committed by Mary-Margaret's mother, the only relative with a lick of sense. Inspired by camaraderie with this long-dead woman, Ellen flushes her pills away, packs up her kids, and plans to move on -- just when it looks like Jimmy may be breaking out of his stupor. The clichÉd ending does not resolve a hitherto sensitive, probing story about the lasting scars of abuse. Lovely prose, but only for those who can stomach the content.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0060897848
Page count: 236pp
Publisher: Viking