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  Library Journal Review

Ellen must go with her unemployed husband to live with her in-laws. Their home in Hollysfield, WI, is a place of unrelenting negativity and rigidity. In the early 1970s, when women are just begnning to recognize their choices, Ellen must decide whether she will stick with her marriage or save herself and her children. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Booklist Review

Set a decade ago, this novel is about gritty small-town life in Wisconsin. Ellen along with her unemployed husband, James, and their two young children, Amy and Herbert, have returned to live with her in-laws, a bitter and narrow-minded couple, irascible and tough as the farm life they've endured, carefully cloaking their dark secrets. For Ellen, the pressures of her teaching job and raising a family often collide with life in this morbid household, and her marriage to a distant man, still under his father's thumb, is crumbling. It doesn't help that when James does find a job, it is as a salesman of out-of-date farm machinery, which keeps him on the road. But in the end, Ellen triumphs over a multitude of domestic and marital problems to grasp her emerging sense of self. Ansay writes with a diamond clarity tempered by compassion. ~--Theresa Ducato

  Kirkus Review

First-time author Ansay, a 1992 recipient of the Nelson Algren Prize, subjects her readers to a small-town family's legacy of abuse and despair. In 1972, Jimmy and Ellen Grier, a young couple with two children, move back to their German-American rural Wisconsin hometown and into the oppressive house of Jimmy's parents, a bitter couple who allow no joy or warmth at their hearth. Ellen longs to leave, but Jimmy refuses to budge, maintaining that he knows what is best for his family, which includes reverting to a kid in the presence of his mother, Mary-Margaret, and a defenseless sap in front of his abusive father, Fritz. To his children, Jimmy is an eccentric, distant man, and they are most comfortable when he is away selling farm equipment for days or weeks at a time; then they can steal some moments alone with their mother and give in to their inherent good natures. The early chapters are almost unbearable to read, as vulnerable Ellen is forced by convention into an unhappy life. The pain only intensifies as the narrative reveals the stories of Mary-Margaret, her sister Salome, Jimmy, and his twin brothers who died at birth; we see that the family's regressive behavior can be attributed to Fritz's brutality. Ellen's defense is to take prescription pills that numb her. She almost becomes another victim until she learns about an audacious act once committed by Mary-Margaret's mother, the only relative with a lick of sense. Inspired by camaraderie with this long-dead woman, Ellen flushes her pills away, packs up her kids, and plans to move on- -just when it looks like Jimmy may be breaking out of his stupor. The clichéd ending does not resolve a hitherto sensitive, probing story about the lasting scars of abuse. Lovely prose, but only for those who can stomach the content.
Summary
In a stark, troubling, yet ultimately triumphant celebration of self-determination, award-winning author A. Mannete Ansay re-creates a stifling world of guilty 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 perpetuated 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 straight to endure, change, and grow in the all-pervading darkness that threatens to destroy everything she is and everyone she loves.
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