Last night was a rainy, stormy night in Richmond – perfect for reading a dark story. I have a stack of books from local secondhand bookstore The Cracked Book (no kickbacks, I just believe in this little gem of a bookstore), and from the pile ending up grabbing Vinegar Hill, by A. Manette Ansay.
If you ever find yourself looking for a dark story to accompany a dark night, and you’d like something that you can read in a matter of hours – this is the perfect read.
Note: I didn’t know it was an Oprah Book Club book – not that I have anything against the OBC. I chose this book simply based on the cover, the synopsis on the back, and the words on the random page that I opened. I’m glad she chose this novel.
Vinegar Hill is a story about a family of four: Ellen, the 30-something mom, James (aka Jimmy) the, presumably a few years older but still 30-something dad, pre-teen daughter, and adolescent son, who move from Illinois back to James’ childhood home in miserable Vinegar Hill.
The story is rife with tales and examples of abuse stemming from one loathsome man (Fritz, James’ father) to his family and extended family. Mary-Margaret (nicknamed Mary-May), James’ mother, perpetuates the cycle by verbally abusing Ellen and her children. The people who live in the house on Vinegar Hill are strict Catholics, and their God is vengeful. The closets of Vinegar Hill hold secrets of abuse, murder, revenge, and pain. Hate begets hate, misery breeds misery.
And caught in the middle of this are Ellen and her two children.
There are many themes in Vinegar Hill: feminism, religion, family, sacrifice, redemption, grace, patience, spiritual growth – but the one I identified with was the power of female friendships.
Ellen consistently struggles with her Catholic faith, and the advice given to her by Father Bork, her mother, her sisters, her mother-in-law, and women who teach alongside her at the Catholic school where she works. These women urge her to submit to her husband and let him make the family decisions that impact them all, despite that they are fueled from his own selfish desires. Ellen is encouraged to forgive James’ short-temper, lack of motivation, retreating love for her and their children, and his self-withdraw which grows until his children and wife become strange beings to him.
This mentality perpetuates a patriarchal society where women are made to feel powerless and trapped. The heroine, Ellen, in Vinegar Hill is the perfect embodiment of these. As she debates whether or not to turn to those around her who should offer support, sometimes testing the waters by offering up a watered-down version of her actual needs for support, she is given advice that is contradictory to her own natural instincts. We see the heroine sink deeper into her despair.
How many of us have been there?
Ellen finds herself exploring a critical-to-the-plot-line friendship with forward-thinking divorcee Barb, even though Barb embodies characteristics that actually scare Ellen; they are so radically different from her own. As the story progresses, Ellen seeks to cope by putting herself into a medicated fog. And then one day, Barb helps Ellen to a small breakthrough that begins the novels turnaround. And this – this essential part of the story is where I stopped hating Ellen.
Because I hated Ellen before this. I hated her for being kowtowing to her husband’s demands even though that fool was doing nothing to support his family. I hated that she was taking abuse from her mother and father-in law, while her loser husband sat by and wilted into a shadow of a man. I hated how she had zero support from her friends (save Barb), family, and religion. Even worse, I hated how desperately unhappy the children were. I wanted to drag Ellen from her dark place to the surface and light again – I wanted to empower her and put her back in control of her life.
I don’t want to give away the novel’s ending so stop reading if you’re going to pick up the book because the rest could be a spoiler, but I will say this: thank God (whomever he/she is to you) for life-changing friendships. Then thank the friend who changes your life.