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Hegi, Ursula 1946-

HEGI, Ursula 1946-

PERSONAL: Born May 23, 1946, in Düsseldorf, West Germany; came to the United States in 1965, naturalized citizen, 1970; daughter of Heinrich and Johanna (Maas) Koch; married Ernest Hegi (a management consultant), October 21, 1967 (divorced, 1984); companion to Gordon Gagliano (an architect); children: Eric, Adam. Education: University of New Hampshire, B.A., 1978, M.A., 1979.

ADDRESSES: Home—Nine Mile Falls, WA 99026. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

CAREER: University of New Hampshire, Durham, lecturer in English, beginning 1978; currently professor of fiction writing, Eastern Washington University. Participates in writing conferences; gives poetry and fiction readings. Serves on the board of National Book Critics Circle.

MEMBER: Associated Writing Programs.

AWARDS, HONORS: Nominee, PEN/Faulkner Award, 1994, for Stones from the River.

WRITINGS:

Intrusions (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1981.

Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, University of Idaho Press (Moscow, ID), 1988.

Floating in My Mother's Palm (novel), Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Stones from the River, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Salt Dancers, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

Tearing the Silence: Being German in America, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

The Vision of Emma Blau, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

Hotel of the Saints: Stories, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.

Trudi & Pia, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.

Sacred Time, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to magazines, including McCall's, Feminist Studies, Ms., Blue Buildings, Bradford Review, and Kayak.

ADAPTATIONS: The Vision of Emma Blau was adapted for audio by Simon & Schuster Audio.

SIDELIGHTS: Ursula Hegi was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II. She immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen, married, and raised two sons before beginning studies at the University of New Hampshire. In short stories, novels, and nonfiction, Hegi rehearses the pain of internal shame—shame that is the product not of what one has done but of what one is. Hegi's characters are, like herself, German Americans born in the immediate aftermath of World War II and surrounded by people directly or indirectly implicated in wartime atrocities who steadfastly refuse to speak about the war. Her first novel, Intrusions, is the author's only attempt to overlay a story with humor and a modernist technique. Floating in My Mother's Palm, her second novel, essentially tells the author's own story of growing up in the first generation after World War II, cushioned from knowledge of the part her parents and countrymen played in the atrocities of that war by their perfect silence on the subject but nonetheless attuned to the guilt and self-hatred she sees in the adults around her.

Reading more like a collection of interconnected stories than a traditional novel, Floating in My Mother's Palm is set in the fictional German town of Bergdorf, a place Hegi has returned to several times in her fiction. The interwoven lives of the villagers are the stuff of these stories, which "glow with the luminosity of Impressionist paintings," commented Sybil Steinberg in Publishers Weekly.

Among the secondary characters in Floating in My Mother's Palm is Trudi Montag, the town librarian, a dwarf who seems to know everyone's secrets. Trudi became the central character in Hegi's next novel, Stones from the River, a highly celebrated treatment of life in a German town just before and during the rise of Hitler. Because Trudi is a dwarf, the townspeople fail to treat her like a person and end up spilling their secrets in front of her as though she weren't there. During the war, Trudi is able to hide several Jews, in part because of this invisibility. Reviewers were quick to draw comparisons between Hegi's dwarf and another famous fictional dwarf living through the Nazi era in Germany, that created by Günter Grass in The Tin Drum. "For both authors [Hegi and Grass]," noted Victoria J. Barnett in the Christian Century, "the Third Reich is part of a continuum (for Hegi, of silence; for Grass, of moral chaos) that begins long before 1933 and is not broken after 1945. Further, they contend that the failure to deal honestly with the past ensures the continuance of moral corruption." Thus, the importance of telling stories, of Trudi's stories, whatever their partiality or intent, lies in breaking the silence. "Telling a story and living a life—this compelling novel makes us see how little difference there is between them," observed Bill Ott in Booklist. Likewise, New York Times contributor Suzanne Ruta remarked: "In [Trudi's] progress from malicious gossip to serene artist, she hints at the ambiguous roots of the writer's vocation."

Stones from the River earned a nomination for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was chosen for Oprah's talk show reading club. The novel was quickly followed by Salt Dancers, set in the author's adopted home of Washington State, where a forty-one-year-old woman decides to confront her abusive father in the hope of healing old wounds that might cause her to abuse her own unborn child. Christian Century contributor Sondra B. Willobee viewed Salt Dancers as a recovery novel, one in which the protagonist essentially travels the road from childhood injury through understanding to recovery. "Julia is distinguished from the heroines of other recovery novels by her awareness of her own cruelty and her willingness to understand the roots of her parents' pain," Willobee observed. Like Hegi's other protagonists, Julia learns the importance of moving out of the silence of memories and into the realm of stories. Returning home to confront her father, she realizes that she had forgotten a myriad of good times in her childhood, and along with new insights, she gains renewed relationships with her father, her estranged brother, and with the mother who had abandoned her years before.

For John Skow, who reviewed Salt Dancers for Time, Hegi's 1995 novel is too programmatic, too closely aligned to the recovery model, to be successful as fiction. The novel's conclusion is especially flawed, according to Skow: "This slack stuff is soap opera, and even a writer as gifted as Hegi can't dress it up as anything else." For other reviewers, Hegi's skills as a writer allowed her to overcome any flaws in her plot. Booklist reviewer Margaret Flanagan averred: "In achingly beautiful prose that exacts a huge emotional toll, the author at once shatters and rebuilds the myth of the family unit." Similarly, a contributor to Publishers Weekly compared Salt Dancers favorably with Hegi's Stones from the River and Floating in My Mother's Palm, concluding: "There is both poignancy and suspense in Julia's journey through her past, and the surprises she encounters in herself as well as others lead to a healing resolution that has the open-ended feel of real life." And for Abby Frucht, who reviewed Salt Dancers for the New York Times, Hegi's novel compared favorably with other contemporary accounts of childhood abuse reckoned in adult terms by writers such as Kaye Gibbons, Dorothy Allison, and Mona Simpson: "Perhaps it is the peculiar authority of the narrative voice in Ursula Hegi's latest novel—its refusal either to sentimentalize or sensationalize, its insistence on undulating intuitively through the various part of the story—that makes Salt Dancers seem fresh."

Hegi turned to nonfiction with Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America. The book is based on the author's interviews with more than two hundred people who, like her, were born in Germany during or just after World War II and later immigrated to the United States. Tearing the Silence offers representative discourses on such verboten topics as racial prejudice and what these German Americans knew about their parents' involvement with Nazism. "The stories differ strikingly, but for the most part they share a common element: shame for the sins of their fathers," observed Sally Eckhoff for Salon.com. Although a Publishers Weekly reviewer proclaimed, "These are powerful portraits of survivors of Hitler's legacy," Nation contributor Amei Wallach complained that in choosing to write nonfiction, Hegi forfeits her best tools: she is "a novelist who knows perfectly how to tune nuance, charge scenes and beguile language. But at the very moment that she has chosen to write about the subject closest to her, her own story, she abandons what she's best at, on the wrongheaded assumption that fact is more convincing that fiction." Other critics felt differently, however. For example, Kay Meredith Dusheck contended in Library Journal: "This singular work is an important addition to a greater understanding of the Holocaust."

In The Vision of Emma Blau, Hegi returns to fiction and the fictional world of Burgdorf, Germany, with an epic story of a family of German immigrants whose lives are ruined by the obsession of one of its members. Near the turn of the twentieth century, Stefan Blau leaves his home town of Burgdorf to come to the East Coast of the United States. After arriving, he has a vision of a young girl dancing in a courtyard, and resolves to make that vision a reality by building the Wasserburg, a luxury hotel set on the banks of a lake in New Hampshire. His singular focus on attaining that goal leads him to neglect his family. After the death of his first two wives in childbirth, Stefan returns to Burgdorf to find a third wife. He returns to New Hampshire with Helene Montag, aunt of Trudie Montag, the librarian in Stones from the River, who appears briefly in Floating in My Mother's Palm. "This book started in my head long before I wrote Stones," Hegi explained to an interviewer for Publishers Weekly. "I started it right after Floating, and when Stones crowded it aside, I had already begun to think about this boy who runs away from Germany to the United States."

Critical response to The Vision of Emma Blau was generally positive. In a review in the Atlantic, Phoebe-Lou Adams counted among the assets of the novel "a large cast of convincing Blaus, tenants, relatives back in Germany, and Winnipesaukee [New Hampshire] locals." Hegi's account of the family of German Americans in the 1950s was also remarked upon. "In The Vision of Emma Blau, [Hegi] tells a story whose scope is an entire century, one filled with insight into a family legacy of secrets, the difficulties of assimilation, intergenerational misunderstanding and half-truths grown unmanageable over time," observed Valerie Ryan in the Seattle Times. A contributor to Publishers Weekly similarly acknowledged "Hegi's gift for depicting family dynamics and sexual relationships, including the concealed sorrows and tensions that motivate behavior," adding, "but it is her larger perspective of a family's cultural roots that grants her novel distinction."

In Sacred Time, Hegi again shows her penchant for and ability to portray the complex dynamics of a large family. In this novel, she leaves Germany for the United States, following—for more than fifty years—the lives of a turbulent and chaotic yet charming Italian-American family living in the Bronx, New York. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly described the opening as "boisterously funny," but pointed out that the subsequent family tragedy creates a "moving if occasionally manipulative" novel. Beth E. Anderson, reviewing Sacred Time for Library Journal, commented that "Hegi puts her readers smack in the center of the psychological morass" while creating quirky characters that provide the reader with comic relief in what would otherwise be an unremittingly grim story. Caledonia Kearns, reviewing the book for the Boston Globe, wrote, "It is to Hegi's credit that she has created characters whose intensity and love for one another ring true."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Bauermeister, Erica, Five Hundred Great Books by Women, Penguin (New York, NY), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Atlantic, March, 2000, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Vision of Emma Blau, p. 116.

Booklist, March 15, 1994, Bill Ott, review of Stones from the River, p. 1327; August, 1995, Margaret Flanagan, review of Salt Dancers, p. 1929; July, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of Tearing the Silence, p. 1793; November 15, 1999, Grace Fill, review of The Vision of Emma Blau, p. 580.

Boston Globe, May 23, 2004, Caledonia Kearns, review of Sacred Time, section L, p. 9.

Christian Century, August 10, 1994, Victoria J. Barnett, review of Stones from the River, p. 755; April 24, 1996, Sondra B. Willobee, review of Salt Dancers, p. 464.

Chronicle of Higher Education, December 7, 1994, Peter Monaghan, "A Writer Confronts Her German Ghosts," p. A6.

Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 1997, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Stones from the River, p. 65.

Glamour, March, 1994, Laura Mathews, review of Stones from the River, p. 156.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1997, review of Tearing the Silence.

Library Journal, March 1, 1990, Mary Soete, review of Floating in My Mother's Palm, p. 116; January, 1994, Michael T. O'Pecko, review of Stones from the River, p. 160; July, 1995, Patricia Ross, review of Salt Dancers, p. 120; June 1, 1997, Kay Meredith Dusheck, review of Tearing the Silence, p. 122; December, 1999, Eleanor J. Bader, review of The Vision of Emma Blau, p. 186; December 2003, Beth E. Anderson, review of Sacred Time, p. 166.

Mother Jones, July-August, 1990, Georgia Brown, review of Floating in My Mother's Palm, p. 56.

Nation, July 28, 1997, Amei Wallach, review of Tearing the Silence, p. 31.

Newsweek, April 18, 1994, Laura Shapiro, review of Stones from the River, p. 63.

New York Times, March 18, 1990, Edward Hoagland, review of Floating in My Mother's Palm, section 7, p. 5; March 20, 1994, Suzanne Ruta, "The Secrets of a Small German Town"; August 27, 1995, Abby Frucht, "Like a Motherless Child"; August 17, 1997, Walter Reich, "Guilty Long Ago"; February 13, 2000, Diana Postlethwaite, review of The Vision of Emma Blau.

New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1994, Jon Elsen, "What Wasn't Taught in School," p. 2.

Publishers Weekly, January 5, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Floating in My Mother's Palm, p. 62; January 17, 1994, review of Stones from the River, p. 400; March 14, 1994, Kitty Harmon, interview with Hegi, p. 52; May 22, 1995, review of Salt Dancers, p. 46; June 16, 1997, review of Tearing the Silence, p. 55; November 29, 1999, review of The Vision of Emma Blau, p. 51; October 6, 2003, review of Sacred Time, p. 57.

Seattle Times, February 6, 2000, Valerie Ryan, "An Insightful Vision: Ursula Hegi Continues to Write about Matters German."

Time, August 21, 1995, John Skow, review of Salt Dancers, p. 68.

USA Today, December 2, 1999, Jacqueline Blais, "Stones Breaks the Grip of Silence."

Wall Street Journal, April 8, 1997, Amy Gamerman, "Behind the Scenes at Oprah's Book Club," p. A20; February 4, 2000, Gabriella Stern, review of The Vision of Emma Blau, p. W8.*

ONLINE

Barnes & Noble.com,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ "Meet the Writers—Ursula Hegi," (August 20, 2004).

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (June 30, 1997), Sally Eckhoff, review of Tearing the Silence.*

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