It is 1972 and Ellen Grier finds herself back in the Midwestern hometown she thought she had escaped for good. Worse yet, she and her family have had to move in with her in-laws: narrow-minded, eccentric people who are as tough as the farm lives they have endured. Devout Catholics, they inhabit a world "as rigid, as precise as a church," and Ellen struggles to live by their motto: "A place for everything; everything in its place."
But there is no place for Ellen—fresh, funny, bright with passion—in a house filled with the dust of routine and the ritual of prayer, the lingering bitterness of her in-laws' loveless marriage. She tries to be the model woman everyone expects her to be - teaching at the Catholic school, coaxing her traveling-salesman husband through his increasingly irrational moods, caring for his aging parents—but Ellen's hopes for her family's future collide with life in this bizarre household, and she worries over her wryly observant adolescent daughter and her timid young son.
Encouraged by her friend Barb, a woman ostracized for being "modern" and "wild," Ellen begins to consider her own desires and dreams as well. Surrounded by the family's obsession with an exacting, angry God and the disquieting ghosts of the past, Ellen searches for a way to satisfy the demands of this rural community and its traditions until, at last, she discovers the family's darkest secret, one that frees her and changes her life forever.
The Author's Autobiography
I was born in Michigan, outside Detroit, but I moved to Port Washington, Wisconsin—a small town north of Milwaukee—when I was five. Both my parents come from farming families, and I have over sixty cousins and over a hundred second cousins who still live in Wisconsin. I was involved in my local 4-H Club by default (I was expelled from the Girl Scouts for biting) and took Suzuki piano lessons, traveling each summer to music camp at the U of Wisconsin/Steven's Point. Later, I went on to take lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the music department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
After graduating from Port Washington High School in 1982, I attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music (at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore) as a piano performance major. (I drew on these experiences in my second novel, Sister.) I left Baltimore in spring of 1984 and went to work for the American Museum of Natural History on an uninhabited island off the coast of Long Island Sound. For two summers I lived on Great Gull Island, participating in a study of common and roseate terns; winters I went to Florida, where I worked at various wildlife organizations in the Fort Meyers area. (I was a big hitch-hiker in those days.) But in spring of '85, I returned to school, this time at the University of Maine—the result of another hitch-hiking expedition—where I worked on their bald eagle project and, also, for the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History. My declared major of anthropology, a field which would become very important to my future writing career. At the time, I did not write. I had never liked reading, never kept a diary, and had hated the English classes I'd taken in high school.
I'd been experiencing increased pain and weakness in my arms and legs since I was 17; the reason I left music school was that I was unable to endure the grueling seven- to nine-hour daily practice schedule. I was also having difficulty walking long distances. By the fall of '85, I was unable to walk to my classes; I was (mis)diagnosed with MS. I took a medical leave and wound up bedridden (I lived with my parents) until spring of '87 when I was able to get around again using a wheelchair and braces. My health improved through the late '80s and seems to have stabilized since the early '90s. The current diagnosis is that I have a genetic muscle disease and that we must wait and see what happens. At any rate, by the time I was 23, it was clear to me that I needed to find something I could do sitting down.
About the Author
On January 1, 1988, I made a New Year's resolution that I would write for two hours three times a week. Looking back, this strikes me as particularly odd because, as I've said, I had never been much of a reader, and I certainly don't come from a background of writers and writing. (My dad has a ninth-grade education.) At the time, I had just returned to the University of Maine to complete my anthropology degree; I moved in with my new boyfriend (who would become my husband) from Orono to Portland, Maine, because I'd heard that there were creative writing classes taught at the University of Southern Maine. I worked as a receptionist in a hair salon. My boyfriend helped me keep to my writing schedule. At the time, I was writing poetry, but he kept encouraging me to write fiction, so I finally did. In the summer of 1988 I won a "scholarship" to the Stonecoast Writer's Conference in Portland, Maine. (Later, I found out that my tuition had been secretly paid by an older woman in one of my writing classes.) At the conference, I learned about MFA programs; I applied to Cornell and was accepted.
I attended Cornell from fall of '89 until spring of '91; I married my husband, Jake Smith, on the campus in 1990. I held a lectureship there from '91-'92; from '92-'93 I was Writer in Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire; from '93-'97 I was an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In spring of '97 I quit in order to write full time. I have since taught as a visiting writer at Warren Wilson College (in Asheville, North Carolina; fall '97) and the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee; fall '98). I moved to New York City in March.
As for my publishing bio:
My first novel, Vinegar Hill, was named one of the Best Books of 1994 by the Chicago Tribune, and it won a Friends of America Writers Prize (second place) in 1995 for a book set in the Midwest. My second book, a collection of stories called Read This and Tell Me What It Says, won the Associated Writing Program's 1994 Short Fiction Series Prize, the 1995 Paterson Prize, and the 1996 Great Lakes Book Award. The title story won the Nelson Algren Prize in 1992, and another story, Sybil, won a 1994 Pushcart Prize. My second novel, Sister, was published by William Morrow & Co. in 1996, and it won the Wisconsin Librarians Association Banta Award and was named a Notable Book by the New York Times. My third novel, River Angel, again with William Morrow, was also a Times Notable Book. All my books have been published in paperback by Avon (River Angel is forthcoming in paper in 1999); foreign rights have been sold in the U.K., Germany and Japan. I've been awarded fellowships to Yaddo (1994) and the MacDowell Colony (1991/1995) as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Excerpt from the Book Vinegar Hill
After the dishes are washed and put away, Ellen bundles up in James's coat, because it is warmer than her own, and goes into the living room, where he and Fritz and Mary-Margaret are watching TV. It's a comfortable room with moss-colored carpet, Fritz's La-Z-Boy, Mary-Margaret's embroidered parlor chair, and a long rectangular picture of the Last Supper, done in somber golds and greens. Beside the TV, Mary-Margaret's piano shines with lemon oil. Amy and Herbert are sitting on the floor, pretending to do their homework with their books spread out in front of them. But their eyes are wide and glassy. They are staring at the screen. They look down quickly when Ellen appears, shapeless as a boulder, the coat sleeves so long that just her fingertips show.
"I'm going for a walk," she says.
"Why?" Herbert says.
"I need the exercise," she says, although that is not the only reason. She kisses him, and then Amy. Their skin feels warm against her lips. "If I'm not back by eight-thirty, put yourselves to bed."
"But you'll be back by eight-thirty, won't you?" Herbert says.
"I'll try." She leans over to kiss James good-bye and accidentally blocks the screen. He looks at her irritably, then controls himself.
"Have a nice walk," he says, and he lets himself be kissed. Amy looks from Ellen to Mary-Margaret, then back at Ellen. She is built like her grandmother, tall and thin, with long willowy arms and legs she hasn't grown into yet. Over the summer, she shot up three inches; her face lengthened; her freckles lightened to match the color of her skin. Now her braid reaches down to where her waist dips inward, the first suggestion of a woman's graceful shape. Her eyes are James's dark, worried eyes.
"What?" Ellen says. She is sweating in the heavy coat, edging toward the door.
Amy tosses her head and her long braid swings. "Herbert gets scared when you're gone."
"Mama's boy," Mary-Margaret says. "Hasenfuss."
"I'll be back soon," Ellen says to Amy. They both ignore Mary-Margaret, who speaks in rapid German to Fritz, beginning a long complaint that needs no translation.
Ellen almost trips on the threshold in her hurry to get outside. The cold air tastes sweet; she closes the door and breathes deeply, chasing the sour smell of the house from her lungs. The after-dinner walks are the only time she can take for herself, but even so, she walks down the steep, narrow driveway, she feels terrible, as though she's stealing. By walking, she's not making sure the kids finish their homework; by walking, she's not available to James if he needs her. And she has papers to grade, one stack of them on the dresser at home, another waiting on her desk at school. Her classroom has three tall windows, each with a chip of stained glass crowing the top. She loves to work there in the late afternoons, composing lesson plans as the sun drizzles gold between the hanging plants, the last echoey voices of the children fading toward home. But grading papers depresses her: this far into the year, she doesn't need to see them to know what grade each student will receive. It seems so unfair, so hopeless. Sometimes she buys brightly colored stars and pastes them on each of the papers just because you're all nice people. But the kids don't buy it: nice doesn't get you anywhere, nice doesn't count. Looks count, and the right kind of clothes counts. Two plus two equals four counts.
From the street to the house looks peaceful: 512 Vinegar Hill, a pale brick ranch set too close to the street. The lamp in the living room window glows red; an eye peering back at her, curious but calm. The heads of Fritz and Mary-Margaret are just visible, and they could be the heads of any older couple, sitting side by side. They could be very much in love. They could be talking instead of watching TV, discussing Nixon's re-election, the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the supper they have eaten.
That was a good roast, the man might say. Delicious.
Oh no, it was much too dry.
No, really, it was good.
Or maybe the woman wouldn't answer the man. Maybe she would smile, just a bit, just enough for him to see that she was pleased. There would be history in that smile, and he might reach out to touch her hand, to twist the gold band on her finger, and the feeling between them would be so strong that a stranger walking by would notice the pale brick house set too close to the street and, inside it, the backs of two gray heads, and perhaps would imagine the woman's smile.
But there is nothing between Fritz and Mary-Margaret that might cause a stranger to notice, to slow and watch in wonder without really knowing why. At night they sleep in narrow twin beds as neatly as dolls, flat on their backs, chins raised in the air. Often, before they go to sleep, their voices rise and fall in the sing-song way of prayer. Fritz knows something terrible about Mary-Margaret that he ultimately threatens to reveal, and this threat ends the fight instantly, with Mary-Margaret saying No, no. There are secrets everywhere in this house. Ellen walks around them, passes through them, sensing things without understanding what they mean.
She heads toward the downtown past other ranch-style houses, each centered primly on its rectangular lot. The doors and windows, the chimneys and driveways are all rectangular too, and the quiet streets cut larger rectangles that cover the town like the neat lines on a piece of graph paper. The most easterly line is formed by Lake Michigan; the coast curves gently until it reaches the downtown, where it juts inland to form the harbor. Perched on the bluff, Saint Michael's Church overlooks it all - the harbor, the downtown shops and businesses, the rows of rectangular houses that sprawl to the west for a quarter of a mile - the clock in the steeple like a huge, patient eye.
As a child, Ellen was afraid of that clock, that steeple, the gaunt cross at its peak. Strings of smoke from the electric company rippled behind it like the shadows of large birds, and she was always relieved to go inside, to sit between her mother and her sisters in their usual pew down front. The altar shone like a holiday table, decorated with flowers and white linen; the air was scented with incense, shoe polish, the sweet odor of women's perfume. Often she'd sleep with her head on her mother's purse, lulled by the murmur of the congregation's responses and the slow, steady thrum of the hymns. The church was no less familiar than any room in the house where she, like all of her sisters, had been born, fifteen miles north of Holly's Field. They came to Saint Michael's for Mass on Sundays, for Wednesday night Devotions whenever they could, for plays and recitals and long days of school, for holiday celebrations. Every Christmas Eve, their mother drove them up and down the streets of Holly's Field to see the Christmas lights, ending the tour at Saint Michael's parking lot - the grand finale - where a twenty-foot wreath opened the darkness like an astonished red mouth. This was a treat they waited for all year, talked about for weeks afterward. And yet, Ellen always felt a sweet, secret relief at folding back into the blackness of the countryside, heading for home, the quietly lit farmhouses spread out from one another as if they'd fallen to earth, a shower of meteorites, each still faintly burning.
Now, though it's less than a week since Thanksgiving, Holly's Field is already strung with decorations. Plastic Santa Clauses wave from front lawns; nativity scenes glow between the bushes. Looking back, Ellen notices that only the house at 512 is dim, giving off the frail light of an ordinary table lamp. Fritz refuses to pay for the extra electricity; he doesn't want the bother of putting up a Christmas tree. Other years, visiting for a few days at Christmas, Ellen didn't mind. After all, there were lights and decorations and a fresh-cut tree at her mother's house for the children to enjoy. But this year it was different because 512 Vinegar Hill was home.