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Vinegar Hill by A Manette Ansay - Book Review


Vinegar Hill
A Manette Ansay

Fiction-Net Rating 3 Star Rated Book

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Cover Story

In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A Manette Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilt and pain and the tormented souls who inhabit it. It is 1972 when circumstance carries Ellen Grier and her family back to Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Dutifully accompanying her newly unemployed husband, Ellen has brought her two children into the home of her in-laws on Vinegar Hill - a loveless house suffused with the settling dust of bitterness and routine - where calculated cruelty is a way of life preserved and perpetuate in the service of a rigid, exacting and angry God.

Behind a facade of false piety, there are sins and secrets in this place that could crush a vibrant young woman's passionate spirit and here Ellen must find the strength to endure, change and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.

We Say

Sometimes, it is the ordinary events in life that capture our attention. In A Manette Ansay's book, Vinegar Hill, Ellen Grier is the neighbour's daughter down the street. Gossip in small towns has a way of traveling faster than the speed of sound and Ellen's life would be fodder for the many gossip hungry residents of Holly's Field, Wisconsin. Vinegar Hill is about the ties that bind families together and how those very ties can also destroy. Ansay effectively draws the reader into the Grier family's whirlpool of regret and sorrow. As each event unfolds, the reader is drawn deeper into the despair and heartbreak that is Ellen Grier's life.

As an outside observer, it is easy to see what is wrong with Ellen's family. Ellen's husband is a man who is blind to the emotional needs of his family because his own were not met when he was a child. In many ways, James Grier seems intent on recapturing his childhood when he makes the decision that his wife and children will go to live with his parents until he can find work again. What is so tragic about this decision is that while he is welcome by his mother, his family is not. All of the positive changes that Ellen has brought into James' life after they have married and moved away are effectively destroyed by a controlling, self-centered mother-in-law. Gradually, James and Ellen's children, Amy and Herbert become more and more withdrawn and unhappy. Although the move is supposed to save the Grier family, it instead undermines James' role as the head of the household, due to his inability to stand up for his wife and children.

While Ellen grew up in a family that was nurturing and compassionate, her husband lived with physical and emotional abuse. The battle that is waged between the bitter Grier in-laws and Ellen is a subtle one that erodes the warmth and love that Ellen and her children have enjoyed. As the story unfolds, it is easy to see how and why certain events have caused the bitterness in the Grier household. Mary-Margaret Grier, James' mother, was forced to marry a mean, cold-hearted man even though she had been raised to believe that she was exceptional and deserved special treatment. Her own hatred of her husband causes her to strike out against everyone around her, leaving a bitter woman with little to share.

As I read Vineger Hill, I felt myself wanting to shake the various characters. Every one of them has allowed certain things to happen in their lives which have ultimately resulted in tragedy and bitterness. They seemed incapable of protesting or standing up for themselves. While I found this to be infuriating, it is an honest and accurate portrayal of how people were expected to act during this time period. Although 1972 was not that long ago, a woman's right to stand up to her husband when he wasn't visibly abusing her was frowned upon. People were discouraged from 'airing their dirty laundry in public.' In the end, I had to admire Ellen's courage and tenacity.

Vinegar Hill is a novel that will pull you in before you realise it. A good book for your reading list.

Review by: Yumi Nagasaki-Taylor

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