Thursday, January 12, 2006
Chico novelist's love story unfolds against an international diplomatic background
By DAN BARNETT
Chico resident Helga Ruge, a German native, is no stranger to international diplomacy.
An author's note says Ruge "came to America as the bride of Foreign Service Officer Neil Ruge in 1950," though the couple, and later their two children, "lived abroad for most of their 20 years in the diplomatic service." Neil retired in 1969 and "the family settled in Chico, where Neil taught business law and Helga taught German" at Chico State University. Neil died in 2000, and Helga's memoir, "Flashbacks of a Diplomat's Wife," is a tribute to her late husband.
Now Helga has entered the world of fiction, drawing on her experiences to create a love story, set in 1960 and 1961, involving 23-year-old Octavia Angelini, a beautiful and spirited Sicilian who immigrates to America to find her fortune, and Jeff Carpenter, Vice Consul of the United States, whom she first meets on a beach in Palermo, Italy. "Whither the Promised Land" ($11.95 in paperback from Clay & Marshall Publishing Company out of Chico, email@example.com) chronicles Octavia's rise from maid, to hatcheck girl, to a mesmerizing presence on the international diplomatic front. America's "promised land" status is fully vindicated, though of course there are twists and turns in the torrid (though decidedly not sordid) love affair between Jeff and Octavia.
Ruge writes about the "exhilarating experience" of creating her characters. "I felt immensely powerful as I created life, formed human shapes and personalities with all their strengths and weaknesses."
Octavia is larger than life. Searching for work in her newly adopted country, she lands a job in New York as a maid for an Italian diplomat and his wife who need help with their two children. She is absolutely gorgeous and has brains to spare.
"I studied English, French and some German at the university," she tells Count Geminiano, "and because my father insisted I learn something practical as well, I took a course in typing and also one in modeling."
Jeff is no slouch, either. Octavia tells her Aunt Laura that "Jeff's parents were fairly well off but not rich. They helped him some when he went to Harvard, but mostly he had to rely on scholarships." Jeff double majored in history and political science.
Why did Octavia leave her family in Palermo? "I've always had a desire to immigrate to America for reasons I wasn't quite sure of," she tells her aunt. "I had even applied before I met Jeff -- but after he was gone, I was determined to come over here. I knew it was hard to leave behind my parents and ... everyone and everything dear to me for an insecure future, yet an inner voice urged me to go to the Promised Land, and I followed it."
The State Department recalls Jeff to Washington, D.C. and sends him to Moscow to help deal with an impending crisis. It was May 1960. "The temperature of the Cold War had risen perceptibly. Headlines everywhere focused on the U-2 incident, which Khrushchev exploited to the maximum, politically speaking. For months, Francis Gray Powers had eluded the Soviets in his highly sophisticated, unarmed reconnaissance plane, taking pictures of sensitive defense installations. No Soviet missiles had reached Powers until that fateful first day in May when his plane suffered a direct hit. Now in a Moscow jail, Powers had time to reflect on his extraordinary capture while American diplomats negotiated to get him freed and back to the U.S."
But the driving force of the novel is the lovers' passion for each other and the question of whether Jeff can marry a non-citizen (and a Sicilian -- did she have Mafia connections?) and still keep his job, his life's calling.
There are plenty of emotional ups and downs, and neither Jeff nor Octavia are exactly virginal, but it's clear that they are made for each other. Descriptions of their lovemaking are discreet, but the reader gets the idea: "Words were superfluous at this deliberate hour of love's triumph. Only the rising passion between the two lovers spoke of immense joy and heartrending pain as their souls and bodies were fused through the eternal rhythm of life, so revealingly new and all-encompassing and yet oh so temporary, so fleeting."
It's clear Ruge had immense fun with this confection and readers can look forward to future work as she blossoms as a novelist.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.