- Summit Avenue
The actual Summit Avenue stretches from the bluff overlooking downtown St. Paul (originally named Pig's Eye) west to the next curve of the Mississippi across from Minneapolis (originally a milling enterprise). Mansions built on this illustrious avenue often imported complete rooms from European chateaus and castles to prove that the Midwest was just as high-culture as Europe. Railroad baron James J. Hill built his impressive Romanesque mansion at 240 Summit in 1891, and St. Paul's Cathedral—a copy of St. Peter's Renaissance-style Basilica—was finished in 1915 at 239 Summit across the street. Residents demanded it have asphalt paving in 1887, making it the first paved road in St. Paul. It was thatsort of Avenue, in firm denial of Pig's Eye and lowly milling origins.
Because Summit Avenue resonates with class and culture issues, it is a perfect setting for Mary Sharratt's pre-World War I novel about mysterious, rich widow Violet Waverly who is trying to finish her ethnographer husband's magnum opus, a translation of European fairy tales. To help with this task, she hires eighteen-year-old Katherin Albrecht, a recent immigrant from Germany, to come live and work in her Summit Avenue mansion. The first time Katherin sees Violet's house, she describes it as, "a castle built of golden limestone, with turrets and lancet windows half hidden in ivy." This is a liminal moment when Katherin "was afraid to step forward. Going through the gate would be like walking into a mirage" (22). Or into a fairy tale. Katherin crosses one threshold into Violet's world and a second into theWassalissa/Baba Yaga tale which Katherin recognizes "was to become my story, shaping the rest of my life like a prophecy. The tale I shall carry inside me forever" (48).
Sharratt's first novel attempts a great deal, trying to succeed as historical fiction, as immigrant coming-of-age tale, and as lesbian love story. In addition Sharratt structures her narrative with traditional fairy-tale elements: the death of a mother, leaving home (in Katherin's case not a pleasant one: Hollental or Hell's valley), meeting a mysterious individual, various tests, temporary setbacks, and gained wisdom at the end. Katherin, the novel's heroine, is clearly the archetypal Innocent Maiden of fairy tales. Unlike a fairy-tale heroine, however, Katherine blunders along unconscious of her potential powers, vacillating wildly in her beliefs and imaginings, making tragic mistakes, not recognizing the wisdom in [End Page 126]her father-in-law's philosophy: "It's our tragedies that shape us, but we don't know it at the time" (71).
Sharratt's novel is successful when she keeps readers wondering. Is Violet's Summit Avenue mansion Baba Yaga's house? Which role has Violet been assigned: sorceress, mother, or lover? Could Katherin herself be the sorceress, her husband the Baba Yaga? The novel falters in the last section—"Crone: Mirrors of a Sorceress"—since it is hardly believable that Katherin has become (at age 22) "a crone before my time" (243).
The characters are compelling—both resisting and embracing their assigned fairy-tale roles. They immediately draw us into the story of poor, naive Katherin alone on the brink of war in an unfamiliar Summit Avenue world, guided only by an old thread of story left by her mother and uncle and the fairy tales Violet has told her. Sharratt's addition of fairy tales to historical fiction helps reveal that the world is full of wonders, and this empowers Katherin to thread and reweave her stories to transform her life.
Unlike fairy-tale heroines Aschenputtel and Wassalissa, Katherin has no consciousness of her dead mother's protection. If, as Adrienne Rich says in Of Woman Born, "The quality of the mother's life [ . . . ] is her primary bequest to her daughter," Katherin has been given no inheritance. Her mother was impoverished and pregnant all her married life, and Katherin's six siblings and father have died. Though it is her scholarly uncle's money that gets her to America...