Drowning Ruth is a haunting debut novel about the ties that bind families together and the insidious secrets that can rend them apart. The year is 1919. The setting is a family home on Wisconsin's Lake Nagawaukee. Convinced that she is making her patients worse instead of better, Nurse Amanda Starkey has decided to take leave of her past tending wounded soldiers and return home to the farm where she grew up, "where the snowy hills were as white as bleached linen and where my sister rocked her little girl to sleep beside the kitchen stove while she waited for her husband to come back from the war. I knew that at home where I belonged I could set myself right again."
Amanda does return home, and she is a welcome sight to her sister Mattie and Mattie's three-year-old daughter Ruth. But their peaceful reunion is shattered one year later when Mattie drowns mysteriously somewhere between the shores of the Starkey farm and the family island where the women had been taking refuge. When Mattie's husband (and Ruth's father) Carl returns from the war, he finds no space for grieving. Rather, he finds that Amanda has taken to her new role as Ruth's caretaker. With a frightening intensity and that she is determined to keep the details of his wife's drowning in frozen Lake Naugawauee shrouded in mystery.
Told alternately in the voices of Amanda, Mattie and Ruth, the novel gradually unfolds a family history marked by the madness and deception, misguided loyalty and ill-fated love. Masterfully and relentlessly, first-time author Schwarz peels away the layers of these deeply troubled women, knowing at once the power of the myths we tell ourselves and the freedom that comes with breaking free of their hold. In Amanda's case, we learn that she has harbored insecurities since her childhood, and that her naivete got her into trouble long before she returned home during the war. Now, she confesses, "she [is] bone tired of all this running and hiding, of living alone with a monstrous hump of truth strapped to my back."
Equally tormented is Ruth, whose memories of her mother's death become more vivid as she gets older. She cleaves to her aunt, the only other witness that mysterious frozen night, even as she senses something deeply unnatural about their attachment to one another. As she says of Amanda: "If I changes my name and went to the ends of the earth and never came back still she wouldn't let me go. She was stuck like a burr in my hair. No, it was deeper than that-she was inside me like a bone or an organ. She'd seeped into my blood with the air I sucked into my lungs."
Love, loss, guilt, lies-these are the narrative strands that run throughout this deftly woven tale of three women and a shocking turn of events that changes their lives forever. Hauntingly narrated and grippingly paced, Drowning Ruth is a remarkably accomplished and mesmerizing debut. Author Christina Schwarz possesses a unique understanding of the American landscape and the people who live it, and in Drowning Ruth, she has created an unforgettable tale of the people who live on it, and in Drowning Ruth, she has created an unforgettable tale of the people we call home.