Monday, June 04, 2012

Vinegar Hill, AKA A Life of Quiet Desperation

Conservatives love to harken back to the good ol' days, when men and women knew their roles and the family was strong and sacred.  In fact, the main argument that conservatives have against gay marriage is that we were all so much better off when the nuclear family was defined as a husband and his obedient wife and children.

Here's the thing-that ideal was never the norm.  Sure, there were families that resembled the 1950's stereotype a la Leave It to Beaver, but look at the statistic about how many poor mothers had to work, and how many middle-class mothers had substance abuse problems, and they tell a different story.  This state of affairs is beautifully illustrated in A. Manette Ansay in her novel Vinegar Hill.  Vinegar Hill tells the story of Ellen Grier and her family in 1960s Wisconsin.  When her husband loses his job in Illinois, he moves the wife and kids back to their hometown to stay with his parents.  Ellen, a school-teacher from a devout Catholic family, chafes under her mother-in-law's disapproval and her father-in-laws cruelty.  Her husband find living with the father who abused him as a child drains all energy and ambition from him.  He turns away from his wife and their children, paralyzed by his memories and his crushing fear that he will not be able to keep his family safe.  Underlying all of this misery is a family secret that has warped the minds and hearts of everyone involved, creating antipathy and unhappiness.

Much of the novel focuses on the strict gender roles that each member of the family was expected to play.  Ellen's mother-in-law and her own mother are disapproving of her career, believing that she should be at home taking care of the children.  Her father-in-law believes himself to be the head of his wife, and expects her-and everyone else-to submit to his every command.   The crushing disappointment that Ellen feels in her marriage and the feeling of being trapped in an unhappy life lead her to take long walks alone at night, and eventually leads to substance abuse.  Her mother-in-law is just as unhappy, having lived her adult life under the thumb of an abusive husband.  And her husband's unmarried aunt is perhaps the most miserable, feeling as she does that she was never able to measure up to her more attractive sister, and bearing most of the guilt for the family secret that eventually comes to light.

An action-packed novel this is not.  What action there is takes place almost exclusively within the narrow confines of the family home.  But despite that, the novel feels full.  Full of repressed emotions, quiet sadness, mini-explosions of anger.  Ansay has captured the slow, inexorable march of the unfulfilled life.  Even when Ellen makes a decision that will better the lives of her and her children it doesn't feel joyous. It's just another sad event in the sad life of a sad woman.  But Ansay leaves us with hope that things can and will get better for Ellen, even if she and her children are the only ones who pull themselves out of the emotional morass that is their family.

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