Critics often compare Jane Hamilton favorably to another midwestern author, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, whose novels A Thousand Acres and Moo are set in farm country and explore human resiliency in the face of great obstacles. Hamilton’s novels are set in the Midwest, the area where she spent her childhood, attended college, and lived as a full-time writer. Her fiction is populated by rural and small town family members, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, who endure life’s tragedies with stoicism and frankness, traits often associated with inhabitants of the heartland; Hamilton, though, does not allow her characters to sink into caricature.
Orchards, fields, farmhouses, and main streets provide the backdrop for events that disrupt the quietude of the country environment. The murder of a mother-in-law in The Book of Ruth, allegations of child abuse in A Map of the World, the closeted life of a gay man in The Short History of a Prince, a mother’s extramarital affair in Disobedience, and a family secret in When Madeline Was Young seem drawn from the tabloids, but Hamilton avoids sensationalism. Instead, the challenges and shocks faced by her characters allow her to explore fundamental human values such as forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance, and loyalty.
Like its predecessor, A Map of the World is set in a rural community, but it shifts its focus to the lives of middle-class transplants who are viewed by the locals with suspicion after an accidental drowning occurs on their property. The Short History of a Prince is a departure from the first two novels in its third-person point of view, its focus on a male character, and its lighter tone. Disobedience examines the impact of a parent’s affair upon a family when discovered by a child. When Madeline Was Young presents an intriguing blended family in which the father’s first wife, the Madeline of the title, who has suffered brain injury, passes as his daughter in his second marriage.
The Book of Ruth
Hamilton’s debut novel was a critical success. The book’s title alludes to the Old Testament book of the Bible, and biblical passages appear throughout the novel to form a motif, and they are delivered by a preacher in his sermons and reinterpreted ironically by the disbelieving title character, Ruth. The book, too, is named for the story’s protagonist; The Book of Ruth is Ruth’s book. It is the story of her experiences from childhood through her mid-twenties, and it is narrated from her perspective. Additionally, the story tells of the books that provided Ruth a literary education that was denied her in the public school system. Also, a blind neighbor introduces a young Ruth to audio books.
The classic stories Ruth reads, tales of men and women who endure and survive, run parallel to her own story. The suffering protagonists of Victorian tomes are her particular favorites. At one point, Ruth imagines entering Charles Dickens’sBleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book) to assist the novel’s heroine, Esther, with the numerous responsibilities she has in the service of others; ironically, Ruth does not recognize that she is the one who requires assistance in the form of rescue. When none arrives, she cheats death and rescues herself.
Ruth grows up marginalized by polite society because she is poor, has a...
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