The rural Wisconsin setting of Christina Schwarz' novel "Drowning Ruth" unravels family secrets, unexplained tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, shattered dreams, and accommodating to life’s challenges. It centers around a family farm that seems the ideal place to raise sheep and cows and tend vegetables. Close by is a sizable and menacing lake, one that freezes over in winter, inviting skating. In the summer, boating, swimming and picnics take over. Something ominous about this lake hints at tragedy past or about to come.
Three strong characters inhabit what seems to be a peaceful place, but as events unfold tensions develop and suspense builds. Amanda is a young woman exhausted from nursing terribly wounded soldiers in a hospital during World War I .
With her superiors concerned about her mental health, she needs time off. Returning to the farm of her childhood she joins her sister, Mathilda, and Ruth, Mathilda’s daughter. Husband and father Carl is soon to return, wounded, after fighting in the war. It’s clear to Carl when he gets home that strong-willed Amanda has taken charge of running the farm and bringing up his daughter Ruth.
Within months, sister Mathilda drowns in the lake under mysterious circumstances, (accident? murder? suicide?) setting into motion the events to come. Carl wants more answers about his wife’s death. The narrative unfolds alternately through the voices of the two sisters — one living, one dead — daughter Ruth, and at times the author’s voice. I found this confusing, especially since the time span ranged fromWorld War I into the 1940s and sometimes it was hard to follow.I later read a straightorward condensation of the plot and realized with all the shifts in time and narrators, I missed a couple of big points.
Carl invites a cousin to take charge of the difficult Ruth, who rebels at almost everything asked of her. (She starts a fight even if asked what color hair bow she wants.) Ruth suffers under the cruel punishments of Hilda. When Amanda suffers the loss of both her parents, her mental health becomes fragile again and she agrees to go away for a rest at a sanitarium called St. Michaels.
The pace if the book picks up halfway through, when Ruth finally starts school. At first she is shunned by the other kids for her strange behavior and eats lunch alone, But her bold and adventurous spirit soon wins her friends, for the first time in her life. Now the story emphasizes the growing to maturity of Ruth and her peers.
Secrets hinted at during the story gradually are exposed, and like a jigsaw puzzle, the whole story comes clear but not until the ending.