BKMT READING GUIDES



 
Interesting,
Dark,
Dramatic

12 reviews

Drowning Ruth (Oprah's Book Club)
by Christina Schwarz

Published: 2008-11-19
Kindle Edition : 370 pages
22 members reading this now
47 clubs reading this now
30 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 8 of 12 members
Deftly written and emotionally powerful, Drowning Ruth is a stunning portrait of the ties that bind sisters together and the forces that tear them apart, of the dangers of keeping secrets and the explosive repercussions when they are exposed. A mesmerizing and achingly beautiful debut.
No other editions available.
Add to Club Selections
Add to Possible Club Selections
Add to My Personal Queue
Jump to

Introduction

Deftly written and emotionally powerful, Drowning Ruth is a stunning portrait of the ties that bind sisters together and the forces that tear them apart, of the dangers of keeping secrets and the explosive repercussions when they are exposed. A mesmerizing and achingly beautiful debut.
Winter, 1919. Amanda Starkey spends her days nursing soldiers wounded in the Great War. Finding herself suddenly overwhelmed, she flees Milwaukee and retreats to her family's farm on Nagawaukee Lake, seeking comfort with her younger sister, Mathilda, and three-year-old niece, Ruth. But very soon, Amanda comes to see that her old home is no refuge--she has carried her troubles with her. On one terrible night almost a year later, Amanda loses nearly everything that is dearest to her when her sister mysteriously disappears and is later found drowned beneath the ice that covers the lake. When Mathilda's husband comes home from the war, wounded and troubled himself, he finds that Amanda has taken charge of Ruth and the farm, assuming her responsibility with a frightening intensity. Wry and guarded, Amanda tells the story of her family in careful doses, as anxious to hide from herself as from us the secrets of her own past and of that night.
Ruth, haunted by her own memory of that fateful night, grows up under the watchful eye of her prickly and possessive aunt and gradually becomes aware of the odd events of her childhood. As she tells her own story with increasing clarity, she reveals the mounting toll that her aunt's secrets exact from her family and everyone around her, until the heartrending truth is uncovered.
Guiding us through the lives of the Starkey women, Christina Schwarz's first novel shows her compassion and a unique understanding of the American landscape and the people who live on it.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Review

Oprah Book Club® Selection, September 2000: For 19th-century novelists--from Jane Austen to George Eliot, Flaubert to Henry James--social constraint gave a delicious tension to their plots. Yet now our relaxed morals and social mobility have rendered many of the classics untenable. Why shouldn't Maisie know what she knows? It will all come out in family therapy anyway. The vogue for historical novels depends in part on our pleasure in reentering a world of subtle cues and repressed emotion, a time in which a young woman could destroy her life by saying yes to the wrong man. After all, there was no reliable birth control, no divorce, no chance of an independent life or a scandal-free separation.

Christina Schwarz's suspenseful debut pivots on two of the lost "virtues" of the past: silence and stoicism. Drowning Ruth opens in 1919, on the heels of the influenza epidemic that followed the First World War. Although there were telephones and motor cars and dance halls in the small towns of Wisconsin in those years, the townspeople remained rigid and forbidding. As a young woman, Amanda Starkey, a Lutheran farmer's daughter, had been firmly discouraged from an inappropriate marriage with a neighboring Catholic boy. A few years later, as a nurse in Milwaukee, she is seduced by a dishonorable man. Her shame sends her into a nervous breakdown, and she returns to the family farm. Within a year, though, her beloved sister Mathilde drowns under mysterious circumstances. And when Mathilde's husband, Carl, returns from the war, he finds his small daughter, Ruth, in Amanda's tenacious grip, and she will tell him nothing about the night his wife drowned. Amanda's parents, too, are long gone. "I killed my parents. Had I mentioned that?" muses Amanda.

I killed them because I felt a little fatigued and suffered from a slight, persistent cough. Thinking I was overworked and hadn't been getting enough sleep, I went home for a short visit, just a few days to relax in the country while the sweet corn and the raspberries were ripe. From the city I brought fancy ribbon, two boxes of Ambrosia chocolate, and a deadly gift... I gave the influenza to my mother, who gave it to my father, or maybe it was the other way around.
Schwarz is a skillful writer, weaving her grim tale across several decades, always returning to the fateful night of Mathilde's death. Drowning Ruth displays her gift for pacing and her harsh insistence on the right ending, rather than the cheery one. --Regina Marler

Excerpt

Chapter One - Ruth remembered drowning.

“That’s impossible,” Aunt Amanda said. “It must have been a dream.”

But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better. Amanda Of course I lied to Ruth. She was only a child. What should I have said? That her mother had been reckless? That I’d had to rescue her, give her new life, bring her up as my own? There are things children are not meant to know.

I suppose people will say it was my fault, that if I’d not gone home that March in 1919, Mathilda, my only sister, would not be dead. But I did go home. The way I saw it, I hadn’t any choice.

“March 27, 1919.” That’s a good place to begin. That’s what I wrote in the top right corner of the page. “Dear Mattie.” The pen shook as I raised it, splattering ink. “March 27, 1919,” I wrote on a fresh sheet. “Dear Mattie.”

In the end, I didn’t bother to write. I knew I would be welcome. After all, Mattie had been begging me to come home for months. And what could I say? I had no explanation. No explanation but the truth, and I certainly didn’t want to tell that.

The truth was that the hospital had asked me to leave. Not permanently, of course.

“Of course, we don’t want you to go permanently, Miss Starkey,” Dr. Nichols said. It wasn’t clear whom he meant by “we,” since he and I were the only ones in the office. It made me nervous know- ing there were others who had talked about me, perhaps whispering in the hallways, ducking around corners when they saw me coming. They probably gathered in this very office, sipped coffee, shook their heads and tut-tutted me. Who were they?

Dr. Nichols moved some papers around on his desk. He did not look at me. “When this is over . . .” He cleared his throat. “When you’re yourself again, then we’ll reconsider.”

He was referring to my hallucinations, I believe, although it may have been the fainting or even the accidents. He studied the desktop for a moment and then sighed, saying almost kindly, “You’ll feel much better away from this stink, believe me.”

There was a stink in the hospital. A literal stink of gangre- nous flesh and vomit, of ammonia and burnt oatmeal and camphor, of urine and feces. But a nurse gets used to the smells and the screams, and the sight of the men missing pieces of themselves.

And I was a brilliant nurse. I had the touch; everybody said so. The men worshiped me. Those with faces lifted them toward me when I bent over their beds. Those with arms held them out.

I loved being an angel. But I had to give it up.

Dr. Nichols had a point. Somehow, I had lost control. One morning I woke up sure, absolutely positive, that my legs had been sawn from my trunk, and although I quickly realized that I had only been dreaming—my legs were right there, two ridges under the blanket—I couldn’t move them, couldn’t rise no matter how I tried. My roommate, Eliza Fox, had to pull me out of bed. Another time, I’m ashamed to say, I actually fainted across a soldier’s chest while giving him a sponge bath.

Several times I had to run from the wards to vomit. My insides spewed out every morning, into bedpans and janitors’ buckets and hastily twisted newspaper cones and the snowdrift behind the hydrangea hedge. Twice I lost the hearing in my left ear, and once I spent four hours sitting in the stairwell, waiting for my sight to return. Syringes flew out to stab my arms; glass vials shattered in my hands; file drawers pinched the tips of my fingers.

I forgot soldiers’ names and the purpose of errands. Three days in a row I locked myself out of the room I shared with Eliza. And always I was so tired, so very tired, that I simply could not stay awake, no matter how often I splashed water on my face or how much black coffee I drank. Finally, I surrendered and fashioned myself a nest among the towels in the supply room. I slept there every afternoon from one-thirty to two until the day Ward F ran out of soap, and Frances Patterson was sent to get some. Altogether, I had to admit they were right—I was beginning to make a better patient than a nurse. My body had got the better of me and could no longer be trusted. To tell the truth, I didn’t know myself anymore.

And so I agreed to go home, not to the Milwaukee boardinghouse full of unmarried nurses where Eliza and I had carefully divided the freezing, mustard-colored room into her side and my side, but back to the farm where I had grown up, where the snowy hills were white as bleached linen and where my sister rocked her little girl to sleep beside the kitchen stove while she waited for her husband to come back from the war. I knew that, at home where I belonged, I could set myself right again.

Outside the train station, I drew the city’s breath, yeasty from the breweries and bittersweet from the chocolate factory, into my lungs and felt better already. My grip on my bag was tight. I wasn’t late or excessively early. And now, for the first time in weeks, I was hungry, ravenous, in fact. I went into the station and stopped at a counter to buy myself a bag of peanuts with extra salt and a cup of coffee that didn’t burn my tongue. When I’d finished the nuts, I was still hungry.

“Would you wrap half a ham salad?” I said. “No, better make it a whole. And some of that chicken. And maybe a piece of pie. The cherry, please.”

Someone down the counter was drinking a chocolate milkshake that looked awfully good, and I was tempted to order one of those.

“That’s what I like,” the counterman said, punching numbers into the register, “a woman who can eat.”

So I changed my mind about the milkshake. As I was paying my bill, they called my train.

“One way, miss? Goin’ home?” the conductor asked, steadying himself with his hip along the seat in front of me.

I nearly began to explain that it wasn’t right, really, to consider it home any longer, even though legally the farm was half mine. Really it belonged to my sister now, since she lived there, had a family there, and I was just going back for a restorative visit because somehow my body had taken on a life of its own. I wanted to confess that I’d been banished because I had failed as a nurse, because no one, including me, believed that I could coax soldiers back into proper shape when I was such a mess myself. But it isn’t in me to say such things out loud.

“That’s right,” I said.

He winked. “Tickets!” he bawled and lurched away down the swaying car.

Spring meant even less in the country than it did in the city that year, and by the time we pulled up to the icy little platform in Nagawaukee, the sky was heavy with unfallen snow. The wind bit at my face, so that I had to duck my head. I watched the toes of my boots as I stepped down the slick platform stairs and picked my way over the snow that drifted across the street in long pulls like taffy. My steps took me one, two, three buildings down from the platform where I stopped at the door of Heinzelman’s Bait and Tackle—“A Dozen Grubs for a Penny.” I went in.

The bell over the door jingled, and the coals in the corner stove gave an answering glow to the sudden draft. Then the curtains behind the counter parted, and Mary Louise Lindgren emerged from the back room. She smiled when she saw me, beamed, you could say, and wiped her hands on her apron front in that nervous way she had, as she hurried toward me.

“Mandy! What are you doing home?” She put her hands on my shoulders, pressed her cheek against mine. “Ooh, you’re frozen, a block of ice!” She held her warm palms to my face for a moment and then grabbed hold of my wrist and gave it a little tug without pausing to let me answer her question. “Come over near the stove. I can’t believe it, just can’t believe it’s you! I wondered—when I heard the bell—I wondered who would be coming in at this hour, and I thought, It’s probably Harry Stoltz, but, of course, it couldn’t have been, because he’s over in Watertown, and then I thought . . .”

She would have gone on about what she’d supposed and what she’d thought after that and what she’d done next, but I interrupted. “I’m taking a vacation,” I said, “a rest.” It was true, in a way.

“Mathilda is going to be so happy!” She frowned. “But why didn’t she tell me? She was in here only two days ago.”

“Mattie doesn’t know.”

That was all I needed to say, because she broke in immediately. “A surprise! How wonderful! And, Mandy,” she leaned toward me and lowered her voice discreetly, though there was no one else in the shop to hear, “I have a surprise too.” She waited until she was sure she had my full attention. “George and I may have a little one.” She patted her apron front significantly.

I didn’t know what to say to this. Mary Louise had been pregnant every one of the five years since she and George Lindgren had been married, and she had lost all five of those babies, each when it was several months along. A person ought to know when to give up, I thought; a person ought not to court disaster. At the very least, she should be wary. She should hold some of her feelings back. But Mary Louise was incapable of reticence, and she didn’t have the advantage of scientific training, the way I did. She always acted as if nothing could possibly go wrong, as if this child’s birth were written in the stars, and she need only wait for the blessed event. Only her hands hovering protectively over her belly be- trayed the worry underneath. What she thought was growing could so easily amount to nothing at all.

“It feels different this time,” she said defensively, although I hadn’t expressed my concern.

“I hope so.” Really, what else could I have said?

We agreed then that I should be on my way while there was still light. A few steps from the store, knowing she would be watch- ing, I turned to look back. She held up her hand and, as I mirrored her, I thought of the time when we were just alike, Mary Louise and I, both happy to be finished with school for the day, running and sliding along this very road, scanning the tower of St. Michael’s for the lantern light that we believed signaled the escape of a lunatic, talking about why Netty Klefstaad wasn’t speaking to Ramona Mueller, and how we knew Bobby Weiss had cheated at spelling, and what to do with the penny after you’d rubbed it on a wart, and sometimes singing.

Of course, that was before Mattie. By the time Mattie was old enough to go to school, Mary Louise and I walked this same road decorously, with our books squeezed tight against our chests, but Mathilda ran ahead, pitching herself into snowbanks, as we had once done. “Watch me, Amanda! Watch, Mary Louise!” she’d call. Or she would linger behind to study the snowflakes patterning her mitten and summon me back imperiously. “Mandy, look at this one! Hurry up, before it melts!”

Excerpted from Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz Copyright © 2001 by Christina Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

1. Throughout the story, Amanda seems to be alternately portrayed as either sinister and mentally unbalanced or as a sad woman who is a victim of circumstance. What are your feelings about her? Were you mostly sympathetic to her or turned off by her controlling spirit?

2. Did you find most of the main players in Drowning Ruth to be complicated and not easily categorized? Who intrigued you the most?

3. Do you think the author skillfully built up the suspense of the fateful night on the lake? Did you guess what would happen?

4. Ruth and Amanda’s relationship is one of the most compelling elements of the novel. At times they are presented in a mother/daughter dynamic, but at other moments they seem poised as siblings almost, or even as foils to each other– especially when Amanda speaks to us about her own childhood. How do you think Amanda regarded Ruth? What, in your mind, was the real significance of their relationship? Did Amanda truly love Ruth?

5. The lake is a striking backdrop throughout the novel, and most of the traumatic or profound moments occur there: Mathilde and Clement die there, Amanda forces Ruth to swim in it, Imogene and Ruth both fall in love upon it. Do you think the author intended for it to be symbolic of something? If so, what?

6. The complicated and varied relationships between women– friends, sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces–lie at the heart of this novel. Did any of these relationships, in particular, strike a chord with you?

7. Do you feel that Amanda’s jealousy of her sister was abnormal or just common sibling rivalry? Why do you think the author juxtaposed their relationship with Ruth and Imogene’s?

8. Men hover at the edges of the novel. The three main male characters–Carl, Clement, Arthur–though different, are all ultimately ineffectual in some sense. Carl leaves, Clement womanizes, Arthur cannot determine whom he truly loves. Even Amanda’s father is barely realized. Why do you think the author created these male characters this way?

9. The island seems to be a very important metaphor. Both Mathilde and Amanda become pregnant there, and it is where they retreat to during Amanda’s term. She, especially, is preoccupied throughout the novel with this locale. What does the island represent?

10. Did you like the continuously shifting narration? What was the overall effect of this plot device?

11. Ruth and Imogene’s intense friendship commences with the voluntary loss of Ruth’s dead, black tooth. Why do you think the author chose such an unusual, visually graphic scene to mark the unfolding of their intertwined lives?

12. In the end, does Ruth follow her heart, or is she still under Amanda’s control? Does Ruth return home truly of her own volition?

13. Were the book to continue, do you think the author would have chosen for Ruth and Arthur to unite? Why or why not? What type of man do you envision Ruth with?

14. Drowning Ruth was an Oprah Book Club selection. Have you read any other Oprah picks? If so, how did this compare?

Suggested by Members

What is the significance of Ruth's loss of her baby tooth, What is it replaced with and what is the significance of the new item?
by ccroft78248 (see profile) 12/16/14

https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/634/drowning-ruth
by hmgrogan (see profile) 10/23/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Good background info and discussion questions on the Oprah.com website
by hmgrogan (see profile) 10/23/14
http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Drowning-Ruth-by-Christina-Schwarz

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by tcrowl (see profile) 05/31/18

 
  "Psychological twists"by Kathryneisen (see profile) 01/12/15

Living in Wisconsin, we all liked the local references. The plot was dark with a lot of dysfunction running through most of the characters. It was interesting but a little disturbing. Good discussion... (read more)

 
  "Drowning Ruth"by ccroft78248 (see profile) 12/16/14

This is a great book for book clubs. It tells the story of the inter-relationships women have. It is energetic and keeps a good pace.

 
  "Couldn't Drown Ruth"by rfescobedo (see profile) 11/25/14

I feel like I've read this before, just another culture and another time. It's a classic sister rivalry, love/hate relationship story. Somewhat predictable but entertaining.

 
  "Drowning Ruth: Atmospheric and Compelling Tale "by hmgrogan (see profile) 10/23/14

Secrets are the focal point of this book...everyone has secrets which ultimately affect the lives of everyone in the book and their destinies. Excellent writing that draws you in and really paints a picture... (read more)

 
  "Drowning Ruth"by Sherri5280 (see profile) 03/15/12

Drowning Ruth is a good effort for new author, Christina Schwarz. Her time and character shifts help keep the reader interested and distract from some storytelling shortcomings. I think it's a good book... (read more)

 
  "Difficult Book to Read"by hbanana4 (see profile) 01/19/12

After finishing this book, I felt very unsatisfied. I felt the characters tried to grow and change, but in the end just came full circle with where they started. With every page I read I was worried... (read more)

 
  "Did Not Care for the Characters"by barblibrarian (see profile) 07/30/11

I am one of those people who hated the Lucille Ball television program. I always felt if she just told the truth, unplugged the machine, etc. her problem would be solved. Same in this book. The secrets... (read more)

 
  "DROWNING RUTH"by jillcdrum (see profile) 07/01/11

This novel was not exactly a fan favorite in our book club, but the discussion was lively. Everyone had different perspectives and opinions which always makes for an interesting night.

 
  "Indifferent....."by ButterfliNoire (see profile) 03/16/11

I came accross this book while searching for a book for my bookclub, I didn't think the members would enjoy it, but I wanted to read it myself....I can not determine exactly how I feel about this book.... (read more)

Rate this book
MEMBER LOGIN
Remember me
BECOME A MEMBER it's free

Join the leading website for book clubs with over 35,000 clubs and 20,000 reading guides.

SEARCH OUR READING GUIDES Search
Search


FEATURED EVENTS
PAST AUTHOR CHATS
JOIN OUR MAILING LIST

Get free weekly updates on top club picks, book giveaways, author events and more
Please wait...