4/20/15 REVIEW OF JENNIFER YACOVISSI’S UP THE HILL TO HOME
I have eclectic reading tastes. Up the Hill to Home differs from North Dixie Highway, which I reviewed here in February, as much as baking bread in your middle-class home with the help of all your young children differs from finishing a fifth of cheap whiskey alone in the backseat of the car you’re currently living in. No book is for everyone. Up the Hill to Home is for unhurried readers, ones who savor gentler, kinder domesticity and who don’t need a fast plot but can settle in for a long, relaxing saga with gems sprinkled here and there and with a conclusion that leaves you sad and happy at once.
The main story centers on Lille and Ferd as they have nine children while living with Lille’s parents, Charley and Emma, in the Washington, DC house Charley built for Emma before they married. Family members’ journals and letters enable the story to reach back to the Civil War while the present narrative moves forward into the Great Depression. The family are devout Catholics, but their religiosity is rendered universal by a conversation between Lille, as a teenager, and her Professor Dettweiller:
“Lillie, why are you Catholic?”
“It’s because your parents are Catholic, isn’t it? And because you’re surrounded by a Catholic community. What if your parents had been Jewish?”
She actually has to suppress a gasp.
“I will tell you: you would have loved whatever God they taught you to love. That’s how cultures are formed.”
Among other the gems I found in the text are Lille’s reflections on her sons: “…[B]oys are a revelation to her. Perhaps if she’d had a younger brother, she would already understand that boys are practically a separate species in their own right, completely baffling in their endless creativity toward chaos. Before having sons, she could never have imagined a creature that bears so much watching while being so completely impossible to keep an eye on.”
History is blended into the family’s story: “Time and events are measured in children. The horrifying riot between whites and coloreds that lasts days and kills so many is in the summer of 1919, when she is expecting Eleanor, even as they delight in Margaret’s first adventures tottering around the big yard; and the 1925 Ku Klux Klan march on Washington is the same day that eighteen-month-old Johnny toddles right out of the yard, and she, panicked to the point of hysteria, finally finds him all the way down the hill on Kennedy Street. She holds Baby Francie the two nights they all stand outside to watch the Northern Lights, lit by a massive solar storm that knocks out telegraph service. The family attends the dedication of the breathtaking Lincoln Memorial a month before she delivers Charley, and all three girls manage to drop their ice cream cones, one right after the other, within minutes of getting them. The day that she brings home the new potty chair for Bernie and Dorothy—after Johnny manages to break the one all the others have used, so that these two have had to use an old pot—she can see their faces in the window watching for her, and Bernie is there as soon as she sets it on the porch, his pants already unbuttoned, and Dorothy so angry not to be the first. That same day, she gets the call from Sister Bernadette that their old friend Professor Dettweiller has died, and she finds herself weeping as she hasn’t in many years. The unhappy surprise of the stock market crash, right after Charley starts school, seems to shock her out of her extended morning sickness with Jeanie, and the fires in the White House and the Capitol, one week apart over the holidays that same year, happen just as Dorothy turns five. The only event Lillie remembers for itself is 1924, the year that Ferd and Charley’s beloved but hapless Nationals actually take the World Series in an extra-inning Game 7, saved by the great Walter Johnson.”
Until reading Up the Hill to Home I don’t believe I ever thought of how strange the world looks to a child having a first view: “Jeanie lets out a little bleat. First it was Jesus and Santa Claus, now it’s Jesus and the Easter Bunny. It never makes any sense.” Personally, I remember not understanding why adults were upset because some boy’s girlfriend was pregnant. I assumed when couples fell in love God so signified with a baby. Bodies had nothing to do with it, so far as I knew.
What’s my favorite scene in Up the Hill to Home? Easy.
“…[W]ith everyone seated at the dinner table…Lillie notices a small whispered commotion, and sees Johnny motioning down toward the other end of the table. Then Jeanie pops up. She is standing on her chair, a clearly forbidden act. Giggling, she nonetheless recites in a clear voice:
Listen, listen! The cat’s pissin’.
Where, where? Under the chair.
Hurry, hurry! Get the gun!
Oh, don’t worry. He’s all done.
A split second of stunned silence precedes the eruption. They all know the culprit.
Pop-eyed, Emma gasps, ‘John Ferdinand!’
Ferd’s face goes from pale to red to purple, and Lillie chokes into her napkin, but that’s to cover up the fact that she almost laughs out loud. Who else but Johnny would have the utter audacity to teach his baby sister such a horrifying rhyme, and then coach her to stand up and recite it at dinner? And Jeanie, a natural mimic, has the tone, inflection, gestures, and facial expressions spot-on. The littlest actress.”
Coming from a large family myself, dinnertime antics resonate.