Drowning Ruth

Drowning Ruth

by Christina Schwarz

Paperback(1 BALLANTI)

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–The New York Times

“[A] gripping psychological thriller . . . In the winter of 1919, a young mother named Mathilda Neumann drowns beneath the ice of a rural Wisconsin lake. The shock of her death dramatically changes the lives of her daughter, troubled sister, and husband. . . . Told in the voices of several of the main characters and skipping back and forth in time, the narrative gradually and tantalizingly reveals the dark family secrets and the unsettling discoveries that lead to the truth of what actually happened the night of the drowning. . . . Schwarz certainly succeeds at keeping the reader engrossed.”
Us Weekly


“A strong sense of portent and unusually vivid characters distinguish this mesmerizing first novel about horrifying family secrets and nearly annihilating guilt. Drowning Ruth is a complex and rewarding debut.”
Author of The Pilot’s Wife

–USA Today

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345439109
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/31/2001
Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
Edition description: 1 BALLANTI
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 153,163
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.79(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Christina Schwarz grew up in Wisconsin. She and her husband live in New Hampshire, where she is at work on her second novel.

Read an 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!”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Gripping . . . A story of deep family rivalries . . . A remarkable debut.”
The New York Times Book Review

“COMPELLING . . .The immediately impressive thing about Drowning Ruth is not the author’s talent, though that is apparent within the first few pages, but the ambitious narrative scheme she’s devised to tell her tale.”
–San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

“Schwarz pays meticulous attention to her characters. . . . Drowning Ruth offers tender gifts–the shore, the lake, the island, all keeping their own mysteries.”
–The Washington Post Book World

Reading Group Guide

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?

Customer Reviews

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Drowning Ruth 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 186 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thouroughly enjoyed this book and found the characters to be interesting and I wanted to know more. The story is written in both first and third person and from different character perspectives. Their are many mysteries woven through this book and it has a rewarding ending although I would have liked to find a little more about the title character's future. When all the secrets are finally revealed you will be surprised by the outcome. I recommend this book for anyone wanting more that the regular chick lit that is out there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So many flashbacks, flashforwards and sidetrips that this novel left me with hotflashes! A potentially strong novel of family ties and secrets is marred by the fitful starts and stops of the story line.
jdreher1 More than 1 year ago
 I loved this book.....it was very very good! I didn't even mind the few plot holes left at the end. I was looking for a different book, this was definitely different! My only regret is not picking this for book club. But then again it might be a little to dark for book club.  
Lady-Lynne More than 1 year ago
Read this in my book club! Everyone loved it! There was never a dull moment. Definitely hard to put down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I struggled with this book in the first few chapters, not understanding the first person writing for every main character. However, part of the way through the book, I adjusted to the writer's style and started to understand her intent in the writing. My only criticism, if any, is there was no Ah-Ha moment for me, the plot is openly hinted at throughout the book, which leads the reader to the plot gradually, instead of shockingly. The story was interesting, the author's original plot idea fantastic, but it's impact on the reader, a bit forgettable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, However, i failed to connect whole heartedly, not because of the lack of personal relationship or author interaction, but more for the lack of hope, spirit and inspiration i would want a novel to install in a reader. Nevertheless - because of it's literary excellence it remains Superior to many other books of it's kind.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just can't agree with all the glowing reviews here. The book was confusing and jumped around quite a bit, which is fine if there is a big payoff at the end. But, alas, I discovered that I had correctly anticipated the ending before even reading half the book. I found the plot set-up of the last 50 pages or so to be too contrived and then the book just sputtered to a predictable end. What a disappointment!
juniperSun on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set in the early 1900¿s, Amanda¿s life unfolds with the help of flashbacks and the occasional introduction of Ruth¿s thoughts. Amanda has no use for self-pity and is forthright about getting what she wants. It is only as we see her life as a whole that we realize how much she missed out on love as a child, and why she clings so tightly to the only one left her, her niece Ruth. Throughout the book we assume, like the neighbors, that there is something not right. Perhaps Amanda had something to do with her sister¿s death, as a way to keep from losing her love. There is the tinge of unhealthiness about Amanda¿s love. And when Ruth chooses to stay with Amanda, you are left wondering if her life will follow the same pattern or if the truth that has finally come out will heal those old wounds.
jauntyjinty on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Seem to recall a very good sense of place.
xuesheng on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set on a lake in rural Wisconsin, this is the story of a family, especially two sisters and how the decisions of one impact the rest of the family. The author constantly had me anticipating a different direction for her characters before turning their story in another way. It was a hard book to put down so I would definitely recommend it.
melydia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have surprisingly little to say about this book. It kept my attention at a time when I had little else to do but read, but it was not a real page turner. The secrets that come out among the characters were worth the wait, th4e characters themselves were fairly three-dimensional, and the description of rural Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century was compelling. The ending, however, was a bit of a letdown, even though it appeared to be implying a kind of happy ending. I think my problem was that I felt dislike for Amanda rather than the sympathy I imagine the author was attempting to invoke. I felt she was obsessive and selfish from the very beginning. Her remorse about the death of her sister was not convincing and I did not care much about what happened to her, even though she was basically the main character. The rest of the story was good, and perhaps another reader would empathize more with the posessive Amanda than I did.
pdebolt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This deceptively simplistic book is the story of secrets kept and the far-reaching effect they have on the person who perpetuates them. The characterizations were well done. At the end of this novel, the reader has a good comprehension of their motives, their insecurities and their hearts.
readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful example of pacing, plot and the expert use of an unreliable narrator.
Enamoredsoul on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book because not only was it a wonderful mystery novel, but the author also infused a real sense of family drama into the storyline. The story keeps you turning pages, but at the same time, an astute reader can easily deduce the ending before the actual climax of the book - which is why I rated it what it is. Somehow, the ending left me wanting more - but it was undoubtedly an interesting book to read.
abutler_14 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It took me a while to get into, but once I hit page 50, I was hooked. The mysterious drowning of Mattie kept me pushing through each page. The author had a wonderful and unique voice, one that is quite rare. I look forward to reading more of her stories.
janismack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this book. it kept me interested until the end when you finaly find out what happened between the two sisters in the story. The ending was bittesweet but at least not devastating.
aimless22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jumping from present to past and back again, Ms. Schwarz relates the fascinating story of Ruth, her Aunt Mandy and the mysteries of their family. While sometimes difficult to follow with the time shifts, the overall story adheres well.
davidabrams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Drowning Ruth is one of those novels that gets readers so worked up, so lathered, so feverish that they run around pressing the book into the hands of friends and, perhaps, strangers on a plane, insisting with wide eyes and spittle-flecked lips, "Here. Read this.""Well," the dumbfounded party responds, "what's it about?""I cannot tell you."Exactly. Drowning Ruth is one of those books you want to tell everyone about, but can't. To reveal a little would be to spoil too much. There are so many mysteries, so many surprises in Christine Schwarz' debut novel that nice folks will only give out crumbs of the plot. By "nice folks," I mean those readers who think prematurely reading the last ten pages of an Agatha Christie mystery is punishable by a jail sentence.In fact, Drowning Ruth might just be this year's literary equivalent to The Sixth Sense.Which is not to say that Drowning Ruth is a ghost story. It isn't. But yet, there are many characters who are haunted, you see, and--and--Okay, I'm starting to get lathered up again.[Deep breath.]There. I'm fine now.From the first sentence to the last word, Schwarz carefully unpeels the mystery of what took place between sisters Amanda and Mathilda and Mathilda's daughter Ruth when they spent an isolated winter on a Wisconsin lake island in 1919. There is a tragedy and there is high drama of the kind familiar to readers of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and Theodore Dreiser (to punch home the obvious, Schwarz even has one character reading Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt).We literally don't know what happened on the island until the very last sentence, and that's what propels us with such page-turning, lip-smacking fury through the book. Schwarz does a masterful job of gradually uncovering details of the three women's lives before 1919 and in the nearly three decades following the tragic events. The story moves between past and present quickly and sharply--like someone flipping back and forth through the pages of a photo album. But even readers who are easily confounded by non-linear narrative can find their way just fine through these pages. Schwarz know when to give us a peek and when to keep the curtain pulled across the mystery.Drowning Ruth bears the look of a book that belongs in the recent flood of what less-charitable critics call "chick lit." The fact that Ms. Winfrey has stamped her book club "O" on the cover doesn't help matters. But Drowning Ruth lifts its head high above the tide of mass-produced, Kleenex-friendly chick lit. Sure, there's a fair share of turn-of-the-century soap opera shenanigans and, yes, the story is strikingly old-fashioned in scope, but Schwarz's skill with words, characters and pace is so profound and startling that it becomes the sort of literature that sticks in the mind long after the final, shattering page is turned.I simply cannot tell you enough about this book.Except: "Here. Read this."
karieh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story about tragic events in the life of a small family is engrossing and well written. Christina Schwartz immediately snags the reader with the character of Amanda, a very complex woman, shrouded in sorrow and mystery. I wasn¿t sure whether I ever ended up liking her, but I certainly was interested in her life and her feelings.For a woman whose very life is so tied up in her sister and her parents, whose feelings completely overtake her at times, she has a unique ability to shut down all emotion, and close off the truth even to herself.After one of the most horrible (yet mysterious) events of her life, she very methodically examines her wounds. ¿My hand wasn¿t as bad as I¿d feared. Most of the blood had dried and the punctures were small in circumference. Many of them were deep, however. There would be scars, a ring in the meat at the base of my thumb. Who could have imagined such a little thing would have such strength? Who would have thought she would struggle so fiercely? I found my father¿s whiskey and dabbed a little on my wounds. Then I drank a glass. People said it made you forget.¿That¿s all the reader gets ¿ that¿s all Amanda allows herself to think. We don¿t yet know who ¿she¿ is ¿ or what the fierce struggle was about. While I wouldn¿t say that mystery was the only reason I kept reading, the bits of information that are gradually revealed by the author are rationed very well.Schwartz slips artfully from one character to another, and from first person to third person. She creates believable voices for tragic young women, shell shocked men, and young children.¿Arthur, six, came to full wakefulness as the water splashed into the washstand that stood against one wall of the room he shared with his brother. He stayed still with his eyes closed, listening to the hangers scraping along the rod and the dresser drawers sliding open and not being banged shut. When Maynard left the room, Arthur got out of bed and went in his pajamas to squat beside his city of blocks. He did his best work in the morning, while the bolt on the bathroom door slide open and shut, the water rushed through the pipes, feet galloped down and up and down the stairs, china clinked in the kitchen, and finally the front door slammed and slammed and slammed.¿And as with the last book I read, ¿The Falls¿ by Joyce Carol Oates, a body of water plays a major roll in the book and is in fact, one of the main characters.¿Released from their ice prison, the waves tossed themselves against the hull with ecstatic abandon, pitching up a fine spray that shimmered in the fledgling spring sunlight. I dipped my fingers in, and instantly my hand ached with cold. That must have been what it felt like, the night I drowned.¿In summary, I guess I would say that ¿Drowning Ruth¿ is a great mix of a book you don¿t want to put down, and moments of very insightful character development. I would certainly pick up another of Schwartz¿s books.
dancingwaves on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really engaging book. Beautifully told story. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A true tragic story of love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having lived in Waukesha for 35 yrs I enjoyed the locale and references to familiar places around Wi. This book was a page Turner for me once I got into it and got the characters figured out. I felt sorry for Amanda but disliked her control over RUTH. Would read more by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bmamca36 More than 1 year ago
Random flashbacks interrupts flow of story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago