URSULA, UNDER

Ingrid Hill

One of the most widely praised and rapturously entertaining first novels in recent years begins with a little girl falling down an aban­doned mineshaft in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her name is Ursula Maki, she’s part Chinese, part Finnish, only two years old, and soon the dangerous effort to rescue her has an entire country glued to the TV. As it follows that effort, Ursula, Under re-creates the chain of ancestors, across two thousand years, whose lives culminate in the fragile miracle of a lit­tle girl underground: a Chinese alchemist in the third century BC, the orphaned playmate to a seventeenth-century Swedish queen,

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One of the most widely praised and rapturously entertaining first novels in recent years begins with a little girl falling down an aban­doned mineshaft in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Her name is Ursula Maki, she’s part Chinese, part Finnish, only two years old, and soon the dangerous effort to rescue her has an entire country glued to the TV. As it follows that effort, Ursula, Under re-creates the chain of ancestors, across two thousand years, whose lives culminate in the fragile miracle of a lit­tle girl underground: a Chinese alchemist in the third century BC, the orphaned playmate to a seventeenth-century Swedish queen, the casualty of a mining accident that eerily foreshadows Ursula’s, and many more. A work of symphonic richness and profound empathy, Ursula, Under dra­matically demonstrates that no one is truly alone.

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  • Penguin
  • Paperback
  • 2005
  • 496 Pages
  • 9780143035459

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About Ingrid Hill

Ingrid Hill is the author of the short story collection Dixie Church Inter­state Blues. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa and has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has twelve children, including two sets of twins. She lives in Iowa City.

Praise

“Extravagant and absorbing . . . I didn’t want it to end.” —Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife

“[Hill] astounds with her ability to meld simply and beautifully told stories, stories with an air of fable about them.” —The Washington Post Book World

Discussion Questions

Although Ingrid Hill sets much of Ursula, Under in distant historical times, she writes almost all of the novel in the present tense. How might this choice affect the reader’s response to her narrative?

Many of the figures in the historical chapters of Ursula, Under are potentially rich enough to be the heroes of their own separate novels. Which of these characters would be the best subject for a complete book, and why?

A sparkling scene takes place in “The Minister of Maps” when Ming Tao challenges Father Josserand to explain the mysteries of Christian­ity to her. Although the scene illustrates the depth of Josserand’s humor and humanity, it also reveals his willingness to entertain blasphemous ideas. What are the most important questions raised about religion, and about Josserand’s character, in this story?

Ursula, Under is a book laden with seemingly senseless catastrophes. Does Hill appear to find moral or cosmic significance in suffering? If so, what is that significance?

The sexual pairings and circumstances by which the bloodlines are car­ried forward in this novel often anything but conventional. There is a general scarcity of long, happy, monogamous unions. What does the unusual quality of the relationships contribute to Hill’s novel?

Can Ursula, Under be classified as a feminist novel, and, if so, what are the features of Hill’s idea of feminism?

Ingrid Hill comments repeatedly on the characters inability to remember the past and the impossibility of foreseeing the future. Why do you think she chose to place such powerful emphasis on states of not knowing?

In some ways, Ursula, Under can be thought of as a protracted re­sponse to Jinx Muehlenberg’s question, “Why are they wasting all that money and energy on a goddamn half-breed trailer-trash kid?” How successfully does the novel respond to that question? Are the stories submerged in a person’s hereditary past a persuasive reason for caring about that person?  Are we truly willing to embrace the premise that every person is, as Hill says with reference to Ursula, “priceless … to the planet”?