The cover of this book is well chosen: stark twigs against whiteness, tracked with blood. The novel is set in the deep frozen woods of Wisconsin, where the narrator 13 year old Ruth lives in with her extended family in a Pentecostal fundamentalist community. There are secrets and sin in this community, and the children of the family are victims and increasingly, co-keepers of these secrets.
Although the book is set in the recent past where young girls can wear moon-boots and attend the local school, theirs is a claustrophobic, simple life without television and consumer goods, resonant of a nineteenth century existence. Hunting, fishing and farming are fundamental to their lifestyle, and they are closely attuned to the passing of seasons and their relationship with the food they eat- the changes in the ice, the viscerality of hunting, the harvesting and husbandry of the earth. The family live close by to each other and worship together, with the exception of Uncle Peter, who is estranged from the religion that binds the rest of the family together in such suffocating ties.
The narrative is set over five months, with each month forming a separate section of the book and it is told in Ruth’s voice and from her perspective. Ruth is a watcher, hiding in cupboards and under tables, and while in a way she sees much more than her religion-blinded relatives, she also does not completely understand what she is seeing. As readers, we see before she does. Her narrative is supplemented by the hymns that shape her world view, and their simple God-based certainties of their lyrics highlight further the sweaty, murky fug of human relationships inside cabins and barns, with the stark and chilled landscape outside.
This is a layered world, with fundamentalist Christianity laid over an earlier dalliance with Amish religion; with Native American and Norwegian heritage lying underneath as well. Ruth’s cousin Naomi has been adopted from the nearby Native American mission and Ruth’s grandmother too has Native American heritage that her children largely ignore, covered as it is by her deep religious faith.
I was very impressed with the sheer confidence with which this book is written. Much of this might spring from the author’s own life, which largely mirrors Ruth’s experience. Her descriptions are poised and beautiful, and in her creation of Ruth’s voice she combines the majesty of the King James Bible and the shy, naive knowingness and yet innocence of a young girl approaching womanhood, uncomfortable in her body, and already blinkered to other options in the world outside. The title is taken from Corinthians 12:9
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
This is not an amazing grace; instead it is a stripped down one- merely sufficient. The biblical reference is apt because at its heart this is a story about power and weakness. At times the biblical allusions threaten to engulf the story- the Ruth/Naomi pairing; Samuel as the much wanted child and prophet etc- but there is enough weight in the descriptions of landscape, the all-encompassing faith and the murkiness of sin to balance the biblical metaphors out.
This book won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2009, long listed for the Stella Prize and short listed for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: it was long-listed for the Stella.