Doubleday, 2000
ISBN: 0385502532
It’s one of those books you hold in your hand long after the last page is digested. It’s one of those stories that stays in your heart for days after the book find its home again upon the wood of a bookshelf. The taste of Drowning Ruth lingers quietly, reminding you of its poetic saga.
         Because of writer Christina Schwarz and the gravity of her first novel, readers are welcomed into a world of deception, young love, big choices, and a past that always comes back to haunt its owner. The author does this wisely, without hints or clues as to what each crisp page will bring us. Yet she grabs each reader, and makes each word fuel for a hungry intrigued soul. The plot is serendipitous. One moment it’s heading one direction, a page later, we are sent hurling to a whole other dimensions with questions we demand be answered. Questions for each character in this startling novel. Ruth, the young girl we see grow up from a young child cared for by her mentally challenged aunt. We see Carl, her father, a man with many questions of his own that he struggles to even ask.
         As with any book, we want to be lured in. We want the impression of something we just can’t figure out. We want the writer to create a mirage that we just can’t get close enough to see—Christina Schwarz does just that. From the beginning pages we can see that this novel isn’t going to be just like the rest. From the first chapter we are able to see glimpses of a story so unlike all the others we’ve read. A task not so easily accomplished. Beginning with the first page and continuing to the last, Christina Schwarz satisfies the needs of restless minds everywhere.
         The novel takes place in the period from the close of the First World War, around 1917, through the late 1930s, before the beginning of the Second World War. The setting is rural Wisconsin near the Great Lakes, the nearest being Lake Superior, a frightening place that has swallowed many a huge boat. Ms. Schwarz describes this Wisconsin town so well the reader can almost feel the bitter winter wind as her characters travel through the pages.
         The small town and farm where Ruth grows up with her Aunt Amanda, and her father Carl, and their handyman Rudy, has its own small lake that is described as very beautiful, like a sapphire in the summers when the sky is blue, beautiful enough that eventually—about midway through the book—much of the land around the lake is sold as resort property to newly rich families from the cities. Ruth's family property, a working farm on the opposite shore, includes an island that Amanda, all her life, has regarded as her own special place. This island, as we soon find out, is the centerpiece around which the whole novel rotates. The promise it holds, the secrets it eventually keeps, and the sadness each character will soon associate with this piece of family history.
         The atmosphere of this small town and its lake is disturbed, and not by the intrusion of the newly rich. They come in during summertime only, blundering and innocent, to a place where families like Amanda's long ago learned to live with the ominousness of harsh winters and the heaviness of their secrets. There are certain things people don't tell, they grow up knowing they mustn't, they don't need to be taught, they breathe it in with the air. You don't tell, not even if it drives you mad. The summer visitors, by contrast, are like children, with no more understanding of what goes on around them than the summer child Arthur, who discovered Ruth's mother drowned under the ice of the lake when he was only five years old. Arthur's father, Clement Owen, a developer, inventor, and blunderer without peer, is first to see the possibilities of the lake as a resort property—and through one of those coincidences that happen in real life even more often than they do in books, Owen happens to have known Ruth's Aunt Amanda before. He called her Amy. She was a pretty nurse then, in a city hospital during the War. When Amanda returned to the family farm she certainly thought she would never see him again, and he thought the same. Arthur's father didn't know his Amy lived on the other side of the lake.
         Drowning Ruth moves constantly from the voice of one character to another, and shifts back and forth in time and place with disturbing frequency; yet somehow you always know where you are and who is speaking. Christina Schwarz’ style and consistency is simple yet astounding; even though the reader is seeing the story through so many different eyes, it’s never hard to understand. The reader never has to question the feeling or emotional message the writer is trying to get across. This, any reader or writer knows, isn’t the easiest thing to do.
         "Ruth arrived with the slush of spring. She was light, buoyant even, and yet when the midwife first shifted the tiny bundle into his arms he felt as if he might drop her, so heavy was she with helplessness, with the need to be protected at all costs." This description of Carl, Ruth’s father, is dripping with meaning, of substance, and of something far more than even these words can present. This is just a small taste of the writing that simply drips with meaning and of fear the reader can expect throughout the whole novel.The plot, roughly, is about the coming of age of Ruth, who once drowned. Yet this is really a novel about the burden and consequences of keeping secrets, in families, and in towns, and in one's own heart. Drowning Ruth takes the reader by the hand and walks through the lives of these characters and the impact of a secret so heavy with angst that their lives are changed forever.