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A Novel

Written by Christina SchwarzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Christina Schwarz


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: November 19, 2008
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48405-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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Read by Blair Brown
On Sale: September 26, 2000
ISBN: 978-0-375-41791-7
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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


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!”
Christina Schwarz|Author Q&A

About Christina Schwarz

Christina Schwarz - Drowning Ruth
Christina Schwarz is the author of Drowning Ruth, a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, which was selected for Oprah's Book Club, and Wes Craven optioned film rights for Miramax. She lives in New Hampshire.

Author Q&A

In the following letter, Christina Schwarz takes the opportunity to answer some of the many questions readers have asked her in letters and in person since the publication of Drowning Ruth.

Dear Reader,

Drowning Ruth began because, as a child, I had a mysterious neighbor. She was a sort of Boo Radley character, reclusive and unknowable. People talked about her, but not directly to her, as far as I knew. My great aunt had been acquainted with her when they were both young. She’d wait in the car, Aunt Margaret said, while her husband went to parties.

To adults, I understand now, this woman was merely eccentric, probably agoraphobic, but to a child, she was fascinating. She had a huge house and lots of property surrounded by a chain-link fence. She kept two white German shepherds, which barked at anyone who passed along the road. She had outbuildings, one of which I was told (or perhaps I’d simply decided) was an aviary. And she was rumored to have shot a BB gun at teenagers who tried to cross her lakefront yard. She also mowed her lawn on a riding mower, her face hidden by a floppy sunbonnet, but somehow this normal behavior made her even more interesting–she was almost, but not quite, like everyone else.

I first thought I would make up the story of her life, full of tragic betrayals that would cause her to want to have nothing more to do with other people. I would begin with her childhood and follow her until she was eighty, ensconced in that house, reaching for a BB gun whenever she spotted some children sneaking around the perimeter of her lawn.

It didn’t work. For one thing, I kept getting stuck when my character, who eventually became partly Ruth and partly Amanda, was in her thirties–my own age. But thinking about her helped me generate the world that Drowning Ruth’s characters would eventually inhabit. Very early on, I wrote the scene in which Ruth watches Imogene at the dance. And then I wrote another scene with Ruth and Imogene and Arthur, something about a driving lesson; a scene that is now stored in a long file box, along with lots of other scenes that in the end wouldn’t fit into the book. I thought about Ruth as a little girl. What would her childhood be like? Who would take care of her? I remembered a foster child who would wait for the school bus with me when we were children, but then get on a smaller bus that would take her to a different school; she was another fascinating, mysterious person, and thinking about her helped me write the chapter in which Hilda comes to stay with Ruth. I also thought of a story my father had told me about a brother and sister who’d raised two adopted children together on a farm, when he was growing up. From this, in a way, Amanda and Carl emerged– they were brother and sister at the start.

Once Amanda had distinctly arrived, she took over. I could hear her voice quite clearly, always her tone, and often her harsh, sardonic words, and I quickly grew very attached to her. Because her voice was so vivid, I started writing scenes in the first person. I particularly like the idea that a novel can show several interpretations of a single event, and alternating first person with third person helped me do that.

For awhile, I wasn’t sure whether Amanda was Ruth grown up or Ruth’s guardian. Even though, literally, she turned out to be the latter, in some ways, I suppose she is both. I wanted Ruth to echo Amanda, both because Amanda raises her and because of their genetic connection. In a larger way, too, I wanted to imply repetition in this novel, which is one of the reasons I set the book between the two world wars. Although I don’t know enough to be sure it’s true, I’m intrigued by the notion of human events moving in cycles, because of the way one generation inevitably influences the next.

I realize now that I used impressions from my childhood for Drowning Ruth, because everything seemed so dramatic then, when I didn’t understand the mundane underpinnings of events and relationships. This attraction to things I don’t thoroughly comprehend is also the main reason I set my story in the past. My father’s side of the family has lived in southeastern Wisconsin for generations, and my ancestors have long had an intimate connection to the lake on which I modeled Nagawaukee. I lived for the first ten years of my life over a boathouse that was originally part of my great-great-grandfather’s summer estate, the main house of which was the model for the Owens’s house. Stories about the place, from my great aunt, my grandmother, my father, and my uncles, were inescapable. To me, separated from those times by at least a generation and hampered by a child’s limited understanding, these stories were vague. They weren’t narratives so much as splotches of color and patterns of light and shade, peopled with characters with names like Bub and Hep. The stories gave me a vivid sense of a world I could never quite know; a place that draws me, precisely because it will always elude my grasp. Beyond a detail here and there–the culverts on the school playground, the couple that meet and fall in love at a parade, the double-decker excursion boat–nothing in Drowning Ruth is true, but the sense of the place and time, I think, is right.

I wouldn’t say Drowning Ruth is a historical novel, only that its setting is in the past, and I hope my characters think and behave in a way that’s appropriate to their time and not to ours. I needed to set the story in an era in which Amanda could do something that she and her community would find shameful, but that would not make her monstrous. It would be possible to create such a situation now (although unwed motherhood would certainly not suffice), but I think that, in general, people today are more forgiving of others and of themselves, which may or may not be good for their psyches, but which definitely weakens dramatic tension.

I researched facts mostly after I’d worked them into the book, based on my general knowledge and my imagination, and sometimes this caused me a lot of trouble. I knew something about influenza during World War I, for instance, partly because Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider struck me years ago, but long after I’d conveniently disposed of Mr. and Mrs. Starkey in the epidemic, I checked the dates and had to push the whole story back by half a year to make that plausible. In fact, I almost gave up on the idea, since it meant that Mathilda would have to fall through the ice in the winter, instead of off a boat in the summer, and, for about a month, that just seemed unthinkable to me. This shows you how little I knew about the plot as I went along.
In general, plot was the most difficult element for me, which is why there’s a little too much of it in Drowning Ruth. Still, although I love to read books in which not very much happens– Barbara Pym, for instance, is one of my favorite authors–those don’t seem to be the kind of books I can write. At least not now. The novel I’m currently writing is very different from Drowning Ruth, although the main characters, again, are two women who are best friends. It’s about misguided ambition, it’s set in two cities in the present, and, surprisingly, so far it’s turning out to be sort of a black comedy.

Yours very truly,
Christina Schwarz



“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
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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?

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