Vinegar Hill

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An Oprah Winfrey Book Club Selection

Vinegar Hill came about as a result of series of conversations I had with my mother about what it was like to balance the demands of Catholicism, motherhood and individual freedoms in the 1970s, when I was very young. The plot evolved out of hazy memories of a very brief period of time in which my family lived in my grandparents’ house. It was there, at the age of five, that I became keenly aware that my mother and I were not considered family the way that my father and brother were-my mother because she was an Ansay by marriage, me because I’d lose the name (or so it was assumed) when I married. The fierceness of my grandmother’s affection for my father and brother, coupled with her chilly distance toward my mother and her absolute indifference to me, only served to underscore the irony of her own situation: she was not family either. Her position as an Ansay was every bit as precarious as our own. And to make matters worse, my grandfather knew something about her: a secret. Whenever she raised her voice to him, he’d threaten to tell.

I never learned what this secret was, but there were several clues. When I was fourteen, my grandmother had pulled me into the bathroom by my wrist. There, speaking through tears, she told me that sex was for the sole purpose of bearing children, and that once I passed out of childbearing age, I was free to deny a husband anything more. My grandfather had persisted, but she’d known her rights. She’d gone to the priest-on her mother’s advice-and the priest had made my grandfather leave her alone.

And then there was this: she’d been past twenty-five, an old maid by the standards of the day, when she’d married. Her father had approached my grandfather, and the two had negotiated until my grandmother’s dowry was sweetened with the promise of good land. My grandfather told me the story several years after my grandmother had died.

“No one else would have her,” he said.

Vinegar Hill was published in 1994. It was simultaneously a meditation on my grandparents’ secret and a critique of the Catholicism which had bound them to each other for life. I had finished it when I was twenty-five, but I was twenty-eight by the time I’d found a publisher for it, and I’d just turned thirty when I finally held the first copy in my hand. After all that waiting, I’d expected to feel something like joy. Yet, what I experienced was cold, cliched dread at the thought of what my Catholic relatives would have to say about it. In fact, as I soon discovered, I was looking in the wrong direction. My relatives’ reactions were enthusiastic and proud-though one of my aunts did express a mild concern for the state of my soul. The negative reactions came from an audience I hadn’t considered: the citizens of Port Washington, Wisconsin: population 7,000. My home town.

Port Washington is a blip on the best of maps, set on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. At the top of the hill is St. Mary’s, an old Catholic church made of stone. Lodged in its steeple is a four-faced clock, one of the largest in the United States. Growing up, it seemed to me that no matter where I was, or who I was with, or what we happened to be doing, the eye of that clock was fixed upon me, unblinking as the eye of God. Who could resist such a landscape, so ripe for metaphor? I borrowed the hill, the church, the clock for the fictional town where Vinegar Hill is set. I also borrowed my grandparents’ house, which resembled many houses in Port Washington, furnished with the same hanging Jell-O molds, the same framed biblical portraits, the same avocado carpeting. I borrowed Lake Michigan-it is, after all, a big lake-and I borrowed a few other general details. The swimming pool downtown, for instance. A particular tourist-trap restaurant.

Not exactly the town’s crown jewels.

To be fair, I was expecting some flack about the church and its clock; I’d expected to be asked if it was St. Mary’s. Yes, I’d planned to say. You figured it out, you’ve got me there.

That, I thought, would be the end of it.

What I wasn’t expecting was all the people who would accuse me of setting the novel in their home. Who claimed to recognize my protagonist, Ellen, as their own mother, their own best friend, even their own self. Who showed up at the readings I gave in the Milwaukee area to chant the refrain of my childhood: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. In a bookstore, during a question-and-answer exchange, the mother of a childhood friend stood up with tears in her eyes.

“Nothing like this really happened to you!” she said.

“You’re right,” I agreed.

We stared at each other helplessly.

The fervor, in part, was fueled by an article in the weekly paper which had run just a few days before I came to town. Its author, a well-intentioned local woman who knew my family in a general way, discussed the book the way one might discuss a nonfiction expose. Even my title, she asserted, was “real,” and she took it upon herself to engage in a bit of investigative journalism in order to determine its origin. “Vinegar Hill” was quite possibly “Sweet Cake Hill,” a small street in Port Washington.

I’d hadn’t even known there was a road named “Sweet Cake Hill” until I read about it in the paper. The truth was that I’d struggled to find a title. I’d known early on that it would be the name of the street my characters lived on; I’d known, too, that its connotations should reflect the book’s bitter sensibility. And yet, two months after the manuscript was finished, the title page was still blank. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and one day, driving out of town to see a friend, I glanced up to see a street sign I’d never noticed before.

Vinegar Hill.

I leaned on my horn. I zigged and zagged through the autumn leaves. Never since has a title hit me with such absolute clarity.