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.
My childhood was rooted in Wisconsin. I grew up on Pewaukee Lake in the Southeastern part of the state, where my father's side of the family has been for generations. For the first ten years of my life, we lived in a boathouse right on the water (a house that had originally been built as a bathhouse for my great-great grandfather's summer place—the house with the pillars). After that we made a big move of about three miles to a house my parents built on farmland they bought from my great aunt.
The only college I applied to was Yale, assuming if I didn't get in that I'd go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When I was accepted, my grandfather, who'd graduated from Madison, was a little disappointed, but I went off to New Haven, and it marked a major change in my life. At Yale, I met Benjamin Schwarz, and we married in 1986, after I'd spent an extra year at Yale getting a Master's degree in English—I'd hoped that if I read enough good literature, it might make me a better writer—and a year teaching 11th and 12th grade English at a private school in Washington,D.C..
Ben won a Fulbright Scholarship to Oxford, so we moved to England for a while and then to Connecticut again, when he got a Mellon Fellowship to do graduate work back at Yale. Meanwhile, when I wasn't soaking up English atmosphere and packing boxes, I was finishing my long overdue Master's thesis on World War I poets and doing some odd editing jobs. Way back then, I had the first beginnings of the idea that would become Drowning Ruth.
In 1989, we moved to Los Angeles, so Ben could work at the Rand Corporation, and I became a teacher again. For a few years, I taught 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English at a fancy private school, and although I tried to make progress with the novel, teaching for me was all–consuming and I got nowhere. Finally, Ben said, "If you really want to write, you have to quit teaching." So I did, and took up odd jobs again--substitute teaching, tutoring and editing—while I struggled along for about five years, basically teaching myself to write and trying to figure out what story these characters really had to tell.
We moved again for Ben's work, first to Manhattan, where I finally finished the first half of the novel, and then back to L.A., where I finished the second half in less than a year. A month ago, we moved from Los Angeles to the Boston area, where Ben is a Senior Editor at the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, and where I've interrupted work on my second book to unpack boxes.
In college a friend and I were taking the same short story writing course, and I remember her asking me, "Where do you get your ideas?" Knowing she was a good writer, she assumed she could compose a decent story, if only she could figure out what to write about. She hoped there would be a trick, but for me, at least, there isn't. Instead, there's a lot of thinking.
Drowning Ruth started out with my thinking about a Boo Radleyish neighbor we had when I was growing up. She was a recluse and lived in a big house, kept two white German Shepherds and a white cat, and surrounded her yard with a chain link fence-unheard of along the lake where everyone cut a cross each other's lawns as a matter of course. The only way to get past her house without walking up and down two long, steep hills or literally swimming was to scramble over the boulders she'd piled between her fence and the water. One afternoon, as I stood on the edge of her property line poised to run, the people immediately next door warned me that she'd shot at some other kids from her window with a bb gun. I was quick, though, and mostly timed my crossings for the minutes when she was riding away from the lake on her mower. I only saw her face to face once, when she yelled at my brother and me from her vintage car to "get off this private road"-the road we lived on, which, by the way, wasn't private.
My great aunt had known her, though, years before, and she told me stories about how this woman used to sit in the car and wait while her husband went to parties in Milwaukee. The poor lady was probably only agoraphobic, but I'm glad that at the time I had no notion of such a prosaic explanation because whenever I passed her house-especially when I trudged up and down those endless hills--I romanticized the tragic life that had made her want to shut herself away and imagined her days alone in her mansion.
Later, when I hoped, like my friend, that I might be able to write something, if only I could think of something to write about, I realized that the idea of this woman and the atmosphere I'd attached to her had stuck with me. For years, the opening scene of my novel, which I was then calling The Recluse, was an old woman watching from her window and reaching for her bb gun, as a little boy crept toward her house on a dare. But as I delved into her past-or rather made up things about her past--Amanda and Ruth emerged, and in their vividness, they pushed that woman aside. There's really no one like her in Drowning Ruth She was a pinch of starter dough, but was so subsumed by the new loaf that I could start an entirely different novel with her today.
Once I had the characters-Imogene came along very early, as did Carl, although he was quite different at first, and Clement and Theresa Owens weren't far behind--they seemed so rich and interesting that I knew there had to be a story associated with them. Other scraps of my childhood helped me envision scenes from their lives-the creak of the ice expanding, the sting of raw wind, the smell of manure all around the schoolyard, the slipperiness of my little sister as she clung to me when she was learning to swim, my fear of my first grade teacher, my brother's black tooth, the tedious slowness of our old four horsepower motor-as did snippets I'd heard from my great aunts and grandparents and parents about card clubs, business college, and nursing school, the time my great grandfather put geese in the car, the parade in which my other great grandfather had been marching when he met my great grandmother, the dances at the lakeside pavilion and the bands you could hear all around the lake.
Finally, I had a whole world, like a great, gorgeous bolt of fabric, but still I didn't have a story, not one focused sequence of events that engaged these characters from the beginning of the book to the end. And although these imagined people and their surroundings and accoutrements alone were satisfying to me as a habitual daydreamer, I recognized that this was no way to run a novel. I had to think what they might do, and how that might involve the others, and how what they'd done in the beginning would make them behave at the end. So I had to cut up that fabric, rearrange the pieces and sew them back together. And then when one arm turned out too long or the bodice was on backwards, I had to do it again. I had to do that over and over, before I found a pattern that seemed true to those characters and to me. I don't recommend it, but that's how I got the idea.
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What do you think of Amanda Starkey? (Is she a reliable narrator? Is she sympathetic?)
Is love a good thing in this novel?
What does the island represent?
How do you feel about Amanda's possessiveness as a mother?
How does Carl relate to the women in his life?
How do the landscape and weather affect the behavior and outlook of the characters?
Should Ruth have gone to Chicago with Imogene?
Are Amanda and Mathilda good sisters to each other? In what ways are Ruth and Imogene like sisters?
Does it strengthen or weaken people to become intensely intertwined with their families?
Secrets figure prominently in this book. Why do we keep certain secrets and tell others? Are secrets necessary in life?