Jane Hamilton was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the hometown of Ernest Hemingway, whom she thought of as an “icky man” who was dead wrong when he called the suburb “a place of narrow minds and wide lawns.” Hamilton found Oak Park both liberal and livable. She grew up in a family that opposed the Vietnam War and loved the arts and literature. She became familiar with Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo through her father’s recitations. As a youngster, she studied ballet, listened to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, and read avidly. She read not so much to find out “how people fell in love . . . but how . . . they came together.” She was searching for instructions for life. In later years she became more enamored of the craft, of the “strong or lyrical or surprising sentence.” It was natural for her to become a writer. Her grandmother contributed to a feminist newspaper and produced several unpublished novel manuscripts. Her mother, Ruth Hulbert Hamilton, composed a poem for her titled “A Song for a Fifth Child” that was published in Ladies’ Home Journal, it became a popular nursery rhyme for handstitched samplers.
Hamilton graduated with a B.A. in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1979, equipped, as she noted, “to be a waitress or wait until further notice.” Failing to gain acceptance in any of the graduate programs to which she applied, she headed for New York with the promise of a job in the Children’s Division at Dell Publishing. Because she needed money for setting up her envisioned life as a struggling artist in the Village, she stopped off to help a friend with the apple harvest at a farm in Rochester, Wisconsin. Her plan was to stay for a week, but the week turned into two and eventually led to her life as a farmer, wife, mother, and writer in this relatively isolated community in the southeastern part of the state. Her love of the land was equaled only by her love for her friend’s cousin, Robert Willard, part owner of the orchard. From the moment she saw him, she recognized in him a close resemblance to the hero of the novel she was reading, the beautiful Welsh boy in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939), and the prospect of a full-time writing career in a big-city environment lost its attraction. She later observed that she would not have fared well in that setting, as the pressures of day-to-day living would have been distracting. She found peaceful farm life perfectly suited to her writing style. She said, “I love the orchard because it [makes me] a part of a natural rhythm that most of us don’t have any more.” She said that she could write anywhere, provided that she was afforded quiet.
As a newcomer in this small, close-knit community, she felt like an “anthropologist in a foreign country.” Her urban sensibilities made her somewhat suspect, certainly an outsider, and she did not gain true acceptance until starting a family and becoming president of the public library board. She worked the farm in the harvest season and wrote during the slower winter months in her upstairs office overlooking gentle hills, fruit trees, and grazing sheep. With the birth of her first child, she cut back on farming, helping her husband only in emergencies, though often overseeing their barn sales of lamb, wool, cider, apples, and pears and sometimes selling apples at the farmers’ market in Madison. She continued to write, autobiographical short stories at first, though always working around her children’s schedules and finally recognizing the novel as her métier.
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