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Authors: Christina Schwarz

Drowning Ruth

BOOK: Drowning Ruth
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COMPELLING …

The immediately impressive thing about
Drowning Ruth
is not the author's talent, though that is apparent within the first few pages, but the ambitious narrative scheme she's devised to tell her tale.”

—San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

“Schwarz pays meticulous attention to her characters…
Drowning Ruth
offers tender gifts—the shore, the lake, the island, all keeping their own mysteries.”

—The Washington Post Book World

“The real power of Schwarz's narrative is her characters, whose tortured self-examinations evoke empathy and engage the reader in meditations about unconditional love, self-imposed parameters of happiness, and sadly, a manufactured sense of home that has more to do with obligation than with love or belonging.”

—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“Captivating … Not only a tantalizing tale, but also a commentary on the precarious balance of weakness and strength and good and evil in the human soul.”

—The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[A] page-turner … A tale all the more disturbing because it is unmistakably human… It remains gripping to the end.”

Please turn the page for more reviews …

—The New York Post

“[A] HAUNTING DEBUT …
The perfect read for a stormy night …
filled with simmering family secrets.”

—Marie Claire

“An absorbing tale in which, remarkably, the suspense comes from the unfolding of its characters—people as complex and surprising as anyone you might actually know… When the cracks in Amanda's fiercely protected life begin to widen, the secrets that seep through defy expectations, and most readers will be entirely under Schwarz's spell.”

—Salon.com

“ ‘Ruth remembered drowning.' The first sentence of this brilliantly understated psychological thriller leaps off the page and captures the reader's imagination… Schwarz deftly uses first-person narration to heighten the drama. Her prose is spare but bewitching, and she juggles the speakers and time periods with the surety of a seasoned novelist. Rather than attempting a trumped-up suspenseful finale, Schwarz ends her novel gently, underscoring the delicate power of her tale.”

—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An engrossing read from a writer to watch … With quietly powerful prose and carefully nuanced description, [Schwarz] creates a satisfying fictional world inhabited by complicated people painfully coming to terms with their common history.”

—Kirkus Review (starred review)

“Recommended … A gripping tale of sisterly rivalry, family loyalty, and secret histories.”

—Library Journal

To Ben

and in memory of
Louise Baecke Claeys
(1902 —1999)

and Marfa

Acknowledgments

I am infinitely grateful to Caitlin Flanagan, who has been unstintingly generous with both her trenchant editorial advice and her friendship. Were it not for the reward of reviewing pages with her, I would have quit many times over, and if the plot of this novel is in any way compelling, it is owing to her good sense. I also thank Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who, with supreme competence and confidence, did for me what I never could have done for myself. She and Deb Futter, whose keen eye spotted the holes I'd missed, utterly changed my life with their commitment to this book. Linda Rudell-Betts helped me to begin and saw me through. Mary Ewens Meyer supplied me with myriad details about life on a Wisconsin farm and lake in the 1920s and '30s, and Jennifer Stuart Wong shared her psychological insight. Timothy Audley, Kathleen Buster, Anthony Meyer, Nicholas Meyer, Sue Parilla, Ann Schwarz,
Carol Waite, and Barbara Wallraff all gave me the benefit of their knowledge in subjects ranging from farming practices to pregnancy. I'm grateful to Alan Buster for telling me to quit my day job, to Thomas Flanagan for his kind encouragement, to Brian Morton for advice on the first chapters, to Barbara and Carol Facul-jak for their enthusiastic reading of early drafts, and to Shelley Wall Reback for her decisive response to a crucial plot element. I'm indebted to Mitchell Duneier, Mira Kamdar, Henning Gutmann, Linda Kent, again to Caitlin Flanagan, and especially to Silvana Paternostro and James Chace for helping me find the right agent, to Belinda Cooper for clean copies when my printer rebelled, and to Mona Simpson for vouching for my sanity. Most of all, I thank Benjamin Schwarz, without whom I would neither have begun nor finished, and whose editing made all the difference. He is, among other fine things, the best reader I know.

Part One
Chapter One

Ruth remembered drowning.

“That's impossible,” Aunt Amanda said. “It must have been a dream.”

But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.

Amanda

Of course I lied to Ruth. She was only a child. What should I have said? That her mother had been reckless? That I'd had to rescue her, give her new life, bring her up as my own? There are things children are not meant to know.

I suppose people will say it was my fault, that if I'd not gone home that March in 1919, Mathilda, my only sister, would not be dead. But I did go home. The way I saw it, I hadn't any choice.

“March 27, 1919.” That's a good place to begin. That's what I wrote in the top right corner of the page. “Dear Mattie.” The pen shook as I raised it, splattering ink. “March 27, 1919,” I wrote on a fresh sheet. “Dear Mattie.”

In the end, I didn't bother to write. I knew I would be welcome. After all, Mattie had been begging me to come home for months. And what could I say? I had no explanation. No explanation but the truth, and I certainly didn't want to tell that.

The truth was that the hospital had asked me to leave. Not permanently, of course.

“Of course, we don't want you to go permanently, Miss Starkey,” Dr. Nichols said. It wasn't clear whom he meant by “we,” since he and I were the only ones in the office. It made me nervous knowing there were others who had talked about me, perhaps whispering in the hallways, ducking around corners when they saw me coming. They probably gathered in this very office, sipped coffee, shook their heads and tut-tutted me. Who were they?

Dr. Nichols moved some papers around on his desk. He did not look at me. “When this is over …” He cleared his throat. “When you're yourself again, then we'll reconsider.”

He was referring to my hallucinations, I believe, although it may have been the fainting or even the accidents. He studied the desktop for a moment and then sighed, saying almost kindly, “You'll feel much better away from this stink, believe me.”

There
was
a stink in the hospital. A literal stink of gangrenous flesh and vomit, of ammonia and burnt oatmeal and camphor, of urine and feces. But a nurse gets used to the smells and the screams, and the sight of the men missing pieces of themselves.

And I was a brilliant nurse. I had the touch; everybody said so. The men worshiped me. Those with faces lifted them toward me when I bent over their beds. Those with arms held them out.

I loved being an angel. But I had to give it up.

Dr. Nichols had a point. Somehow, I had lost control. One morning I woke up sure, absolutely positive, that my legs had been sawn from my trunk, and although I quickly realized that I had only been dreaming—my legs were right there, two ridges under the blanket—I couldn't move them, couldn't rise no matter how I tried. My roommate, Eliza Fox, had to pull me out of bed. Another time, I'm ashamed to say, I actually fainted across a soldier's chest while giving him a sponge bath.

Several times I had to run from the wards to vomit. My insides spewed out every morning, into bedpans and janitors' buckets and hastily twisted newspaper cones and the snowdrift behind the hydrangea hedge. Twice I lost the hearing in my left ear, and once I spent four hours sitting in the stairwell, waiting for my sight to return. Syringes flew out to stab my arms; glass vials shattered in my hands; file drawers pinched the tips of my fingers.

BOOK: Drowning Ruth
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