Vinegar Hill – Then and Now: Feminist Ideas

Sara Pisak, Staff Writer

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Vinegar Hill, A. Manette Ansay’s debut novel, transports a reader back to the 1970s at the uptick of the feminist movement.

Although Ansay has written several novels since Vinegar Hill’s publication in 1994, it still remains an important text. I was first introduced to this novel when my creative writing professor recommended that I read this novel before turning in my assignment on creative nonfiction.

The reason it was suggested that I read the novel was because my professor believed that Ansay and myself shared a similar humor and sarcasm about the unjust world in which we live.

When I first began reading Vinegar Hill, I was somewhat on the fence in regards to my feelings towards this novel. The book is enjoyable, although a reader can say it lacks a full functioning ending, which leaves much to be desired.

I did notice the sarcasm and the sly humor, which quickly became my favorite aspect of the novel. However, I was also quick to find an unlikable or odious quality within every character even the supposed heroine.

I characterized each individual as being at times, somewhat overbearing, somewhat moody and somewhat oppressive. However, now that I am removed from my first conceptualized ideas of the text and of the characters, Vinegar Hill begins to take on a new life and a new meaning.

Set in 1972 and driven by her husband’s unemployment, Ellen Grier and her family move back to Holly’s Field Wisconsin to live with her in-laws. Ellen’s employment as an elementary school teacher makes her the sole breadwinner for the family.

Her father-in-law’s abusive personality, her husband’s laziness and her quest to be independent, cause catastrophic disruptions in the lives of the Grier family. Spoiler Alert: Depending on your own close reading of the text, Ellen is only contemplating leaving her abusive situation.

Coming back to this story after its original publication is important; especially considering the world we live in.

I challenge you to turn on your computer or your television and not find a segment concentrated on feminism. Every possible media and social media outlet including CNN, MSN, Twitter and Facebook are airing articles and segments focusing on advancing feminism’s principles.

Even our favorite celebrities are getting in on the free publicity by disclosing their views on feminism, an approach Ansay employs strongly in Vinegar Hill.

Ellen is encouraged and at times egged on to leave her abusive condition by her friend and confidant Barbara.

“Barb” is ostracized by the community for being too “modern,” too “edgy” and too “wild.” What really defines Barb is her feminist ideals, which do not fit into the miniscule box of 1970s small town America. It is only after Barb and Ellen meet that Ellen begins to consider the idea that she can “equally” achieve her goals. It is through Barb’s feminist ideology that Ellen is able to determine that she does not deserve to live in an oppressive household, where ghosts of the past, the present and the future lurk.

The importance, in reconsidering this text, lies in the element that feminism has evolved and progressed. As the novel ends, Ellen is only planning to pursue a new life of freedom and of equality in 1972. A modern day reader might fault Ellen for not taking action and evoking her rights. However, as modern readers, we are blessed with living in the 21st century, a time where speaking and acting on feminist ideals of equality are not taboo but thankfully an open, honest, fluid and everyday discussion.

These fluid discussions can develop into noticeable progressive and positive changes, which were built on the same foundations. These are the same foundations we would criticize Ellen for shying away from during an initial reading of Vinegar Hill.

Vinegar Hill is a reminder of how far feminism has come and how much further feminism needs to grow.

 

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