Cover image for Ursula, under
Ursula, under
Hill, Ingrid.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, [2004]

Physical Description:
476 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"A Shannon Ravenel book."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
FICTION Adult Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



In Michigan's upper peninsula, a dangerous rescue effort draws the ears and eyes of the entire country. A two-and-a-half-year-old girl has fallen down a mine shaft--"the only sound is an astonished tiny intake of breath from Ursula as she goes down, like a penny into the slot of a bank, disappeared, gone." It is as if all hope for life on the planet is bound up in the rescue of this little girl, the first and only child of a young woman of Finnish extraction and her Chinese-American husband. One TV viewer following the action notes that the Wong family lives in a decrepit mobile home and wonders why all this time and money is being "wasted on that half-breed trailer-trash kid."

In response, the novel takes a breathtaking leap back in time to visit Ursula's most remarkable ancestors: a third-century-B.C. Chinese alchemist; an orphaned playmate of a seventeenth-century Swedish queen; Professor Alabaster Wong, a Chautauqua troupe lecturer (on exotic Chinese topics) traveling the Midwest at the end of the nineteenth century; her great-great-grandfather Jake Maki, who died at twenty-nine in a Michigan iron mine cave-in; and others whose richness and history are contained in the induplicable DNA of just one person--little Ursula Wong.

Ursula's story echoes those of her ancestors, many of whom so narrowly escaped not being born that her very existence--like ours--comes to seem a miracle. Ambitious and accomplished, Ursula, Under is, most of all, wonderfully entertaining--a daring saga of culture, history, and heredity.

Author Notes

Ingrid Hill has published short stories in a range of magazines and is the author of one collection, Dixie Church Interstate Blues. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa and has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the mother of twelve children, including two sets of twins, and lives in Iowa City

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hill's enchanting debut novel spans more than 2,000 years and is brimming with an engaging cast of characters. Annie and Justin Wong, who live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are on a day trip exploring the area where Annie's Finnish great-grandfather died in a mine collapse in 1926. Suddenly their only child, Ursula, disappears down an abandoned shaft, setting off a monumental rescue attempt and accompanying media frenzy. The author leaves that predictable plot behind, focusing instead on the young girl's many ancestors--those with the most interest in her safe return. A second-century B.C.E. Chinese alchemist, a deaf Finnish peasant living in 700 C.E., the child born to a crippled Chinese girl in the 1600s, and more--a crowd of all the people whose blood and lives went into this little girl, brought vividly to life. In an elaborate six degrees of separation game, the author reveals centuries-old ties between relatives of both Annie and Justin, creating a magically entertaining, poetic, and heartfelt look at the often overlooked significance of extended family. --Deborah Donovan Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The story of a little girl who falls down an abandoned mineshaft is layered with tales of her ancestors in China, Finland and Michigan in Ingrid Hill's first novel, a jumbled, ambitious effort. Ursula, Under begins when Justin and Annie Wong take their two-year-old daughter, Ursula, on a picnic near an old mine. Her disappearance sets in motion a desperate rescue effort, the account of which is periodically interrupted by Hill's elaborate forays into the past. Unwieldy but inventive, this is a promising debut. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In her remarkably meaty first novel, set in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, Hill blends a present-day drama with epic tales of ancestry. In the main story, tiny Ursula Wong child of a librarian left handicapped by a hit-and-run driver and a Chinese American musician and gutter installer whose father took off when he was a child falls into an abandoned mine shaft. Among the various chapters on her frantic rescue, Hill intersperses perilous heritage tales, which range from second-century China, where we meet an alchemist relative, to eighth-century Finland, where Ursula's great-great-grandfather perishes in a mine cave-in. Hill's mosaic-like telling underlies the impact of Ursula's plight and her parents' anguish, finally leading the reader to an understanding of the unique value of each individual. This should do well in public libraries; warmly recommended. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

1. Ursulap. 1
2. The Alchemist's Last Concubinep. 15
3. Justinp. 55
4. The Caravan-Master's Lieutenantp. 71
5. Anniep. 111
6. The Minister of Mapsp. 127
7. Justin and Anniep. 179
8. A Foundling at the Courtp. 223
9. Jinxp. 267
10. A Wastrel Killed by a Snailp. 301
11. Mindy Ji and Joep. 359
12. The Woman Who Married the Baker's Friendp. 381
13. Ursula Againp. 447