Suzanne Berne (review date fall 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1403
SOURCE: Berne, Suzanne. “Dreams of Love.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 1 (fall 1988): 13.
[In the following review, Berne outlines the plot of The Book of Ruth, highlighting its central themes in contrast with those of Elizabeth Benedict's The Beginner's Book of Dreams.]
You would miss Honey Creek, Illinois, if you were driving through “listening to your favorite song on the radio or telling a story about your neighbor.” It is one of those small, depressed towns that flick by your car window, just another collection of houses needing paint and a cow pasture. But in this town lives Ruth, a luminous spirit encased in a homely child, waiting for someone to stop and discover her.
Jane Hamilton's first novel, The Book of Ruth, is about the dream of happiness. It is also about the nightmare of deprivation. Ruth's favorite recollection is of the time her father, scooping ice cream at the dinner table, missed her dish and the ice cream landed on Ruth's head instead. Everyone became hilarious. “I wanted to preserve the scene,” she tells us, “just as fossils do, keeping rare animals so still in stone …; on that July night we were actually experiencing the gladness some people feel every day, not just once in a summer.” That “gladness,” which many of us take for granted, is like a starving child's vivid memory of a lollipop: Insubstantial but intoxicating, the memory itself measures the depth of the craving.
Ruth was ten when her father ran away to Texas to escape the frustration and rage of her mother, May (who looks “like she went and slept face down on an oven rack”), and the drabness of Honey Creek in general. “I couldn't stand the thought of him being happier there,” says Ruth of her father in Texas, “but I had sense enough to know it was true.” Ruth's brother, Matt, also leaves the first chance he gets. A math whiz, as adored as Ruth is ignored, Matt goes off to MIT, becomes a scientist, gets written up in Time, and abandons Ruth and May to each other.
They are not a well-matched pair. Embittered by an early disappointment, May is addicted to suffering. She devotes herself to making life harsher than it already is for a family trying to get through Midwestern winters selling eggs. The only person who ever makes Ruth feel special is her Aunt Sid; they correspond throughout her childhood, allowing Ruth the tenuous pleasure of writing made-up stories about her happy family. Aunt Sid tells her she's resilient—“I liked being resilient,” says Ruth, “because it sounded like a jewel glittering in the light.” As life gets grimmer, she clings to the notion that “the meek are going to inherit the earth,” convinced her time is coming.
It is not surprising that Ruth falls in love with someone even more deprived and dismissed than herself. It is also not surprising that the marriage is a disaster. Two famished people cannot feed each other. For a while they subsist on fantasies about independence from baleful May—with whom they live—and the perfect lives they will have someday. Ruth is waiting for her inheritance, and all the while her jewel-like resilience is ground down.
Finally, after a devastating tragedy, she realizes how she has wasted her time. “No one inherits one single thing,” she says. “We're only passers-by, and all you can do is love what you have in your life. A person has to fight the meanness that sometimes comes with you when you're born.” Dreams, she decides, are only useful if they foment change; and “meanness” does not have to be a birth-right.
Hamilton has written a breathtaking book, precise and beautiful in its language, full of sharp wisdom, and permeated by an appreciation of the world's ironies even in the midst of great pain. Hamilton handles incongruities like a snake charmer, coaxing all kinds of shimmies out of a sentence. May, for instance, wears an “extra-large fuzzy green sweater that looked like a bloated zucchini consuming her.” A neighbor has the “shortest fattest legs in the state of Illinois. If she wasn't a person you'd laugh at the shape you saw out there in nature.” And describing her cruel father-in-law, Ruth says: “He's the kind of person you could imagine biting the heads off of game birds.”
The Book of Ruth is the story of poetry trapped inside ugliness, and of the spirit's revenge when love is denied. It began with a girl who was waiting to be discovered; it ends with a young woman beginning to discover herself. Along the way, the splendor of the telling illuminates the desperate story being told.
Love is not denied in The Beginner's Book of Dreams but it comes hobbling along, moaning and asking for handouts. Elizabeth Benedict's second novel opens with eight-year-old Esme Singer lighting candles in St. Patrick's Cathedral with her beautiful mother, Georgia. Esme is trying to decide what to pray for. Her father? “That when he comes to New York he will take her skating?” Or something with long-term benefits: “That she will not be fat?” Or with immediate benefits: “That her mother will not get drunk again the way she did last week?” By the time Esme finishes her wish list, the sad infirmities of her life have been revealed.
Georgia Singer is a woman who runs through husbands like panty-hose. “You pulled too hard, put them on in a hurry, sat too far back on a bench … you didn't even have to move and they ran.” A tall Lauren Bacall look-alike from Redondo Beach, Georgia is also a hopeless, helpless lush who waits for a “knight in shining armor” to wake her out of sodden bad dreams. She is looking for the Holy Grail but keeps settling for glasses of Scotch and for men she does not love. “The worst thing,” she tells herself, “is not having anyone to kiss on New Year's Eve.”
Her ballast in life is Esme. Prematurely old, Esme is there through all the husbands, boyfriends, apartments, fights—nothing everything. Georgia is forever falling on Esme, telling her how much she loves her as she tries to walk up the stairs. Esme is determined not to be like her mother. Instead she comforts herself by imagining the time when her father, Meyer, will send her an airplane ticket to California, where he is always about to become rich. The book's title is derived from one of Meyer's schemes, a manual on how to prepare to be a winner: “A Quitter Never Wins And A Winner Never Quits,” he proclaims. “Dreams are not born of indifference, laziness, or lack of ambition.” Alas, dreams are not realized by schlemiels and alcoholics either.
Although Meyer sends Esme letters special delivery, the promised visits never materialize. Eventually Esme realizes her father is as much of a sham as her mother, who could have been a Hollywood starlet but is now a cosmetics saleswoman at Bonwit Teller. With energetic disgust, Esme sets about making a different life for herself.
Benedict has written a book full of the dreads and passions of childhood. We follow Esme into adulthood, watch her grow up from a dumpy, self-conscious child into a stunning, self-conscious young woman. Along the way, Benedict provides a sassy commentary on the world of New York intellectual “wannabes” of the 1960s and early 1970s. Esme's dream is to be one of them, someone who has read all the “right” books, knows the names of the right artists and photographers, has the right blend of shabby, erudite elegance in her apartment. Her dream is a world where she will never have to feel embarrassed, where her parents' irresponsibility and abandonment will never be obvious. In the attempt to keep life's humiliations at bay, Esme falls in love with her fantasy of love, rejecting the love that is actually offered to her, flawed and human though it may be. Gradually she realizes that love is what she was wishing for in St. Patrick's Cathedral so many years before, and that accepting crippled love does not have to make her a cripple.
Love and dreams are intertwined, both of these novels seem to be saying. All of us have our “book of dreams.” To dream, one has to have ambition, faith, a personal definition of perfection. The belief in life's possibilities, in life's beauty, is finally the dream of love.
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Jane Hamilton 1957-
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2001.
After winning the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel with The Book of Ruth (1988), Hamilton continued to attract both critical and popular attention for her series of novels, including A Map of the World (1994), The Short History of a Prince (1998), and Disobedience (2000). With astute psychological insight, Hamilton examines the subtle nuances of family dynamics in the face of tragedy, misfortune, and dysfunction, as her characters are thrust into nightmarish circumstances beyond their control. Her novels are typically set in rural or suburban areas of the American Midwest, where the claustrophobic atmosphere of family and community life often threatens to crush the spirit of the individual. In addition, much of Hamilton's fiction explores the internal lives of her characters, usually voicing their unique perspectives and personal insights through a first-person point of view. Critically acclaimed for her well-drawn characterization and evocative settings, Hamilton was widely recognized by mainstream audiences after The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World were chosen as selections for the Oprah Book Club.
The youngest of five children, Hamilton was born in 1957 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her father was an engineer for General Motors, and her mother was a theatre critic for the Chicago Daily News. From an early age, Hamilton's passion for reading and writing were encouraged by her grandmother—a former journalist—and her mother, whose notable poem “A Song for a Fifth Child” appeared in Ladies Home Journal. In 1979 Hamilton graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a B.A. in English. While at Carleton, she won the Class of 1885 Prose Award in 1977 and 1979. After graduation, Hamilton accepted an entry-level editorial job at a New York publishing company. Before she moved to New York, however, she stopped to visit a friend who was working at an apple orchard in Rochester, Wisconsin, and eventually decided to stay at the orchard rather than travel to New York. Hamilton later married Robert Willard, one of the orchards' owners, in 1982. In 1983 her first short story, “My Own Earth,” was published in Harper's magazine. The December 1983 issue of Harper's published her story “Aunt Marji's Happy Ending,” which was later cited as a Distinguished Short Story of 1984 and recognized in The Best American Short Stories, 1984. Hamilton's first novel, The Book of Ruth, has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award, the 1989 Banta Award, and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award. When Oprah Winfrey, the popular American television talk-show host, launched her book club in 1997, she chose The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World as early selections. Subsequently, both novels became international best-sellers. A film adaptation of A Map of the World was released in 1999.
Typically set in the Midwest, Hamilton's novels address the suffering, redemption, and resilience of the human spirit often found in contemporary American families. Inspired by a series of homicides in rural Wisconsin in 1983 when several men killed their mothers-in-law, The Book of Ruth is set in the fictional town of Honey Creek, Illinois. Ruth, the protagonist, is a sensitive and creative young woman who struggles to survive in her emotionally isolated and poverty-stricken community. While recounting her childhood experiences—marred by an emotionally abusive mother and a largely absent father—Ruth falls in love with and marries Ruby, an emotionally unstable man. The couple moves into Ruth's mother's small house, where the ensuing conflict between son-in-law and mother-in-law violently escalates to an inevitable conclusion. Set in the fictional town of Prairie Center, Wisconsin, which is slowly changing from a rural to a suburban area, A Map of the World tells the stories of Alice and Howard Goodwin and their young daughters. The local community has continued to treat the family as outsiders despite their six years of residency in Prairie Center running a dairy farm. Divided into three parts alternately narrated by Alice and Howard, the novel opens with the accidental drowning death of a neighbor's two-year-old daughter whom Alice agreed to baby-sit. Underscoring the town's suspicions of Alice's character, the tragedy snowballs into a series of false accusations that Alice has also molested local schoolchildren. Alice is subsequently arrested and sent to jail to await trial. At this point, Howard's narration begins, recounting his struggles to keep his family intact and the events of his wife's trial. Exonerated after the trial, Alice resumes her story, which includes her reconciliation with the dead two-year-old's mother and the family's eventual decision to leave the farm. In a marked departure from Hamilton's usual protagonists and themes, The Short History of a Prince is a coming-of-age story about a gay man who struggles to reconcile his high school fantasies with the realities of his adult life. A third-person narrative, the novel concerns Walter McCloud, whose story alternates between events during the 1970s and 1990s. The first section features fifteen-year-old Walter studying ballet—and dreaming of performing the role of Prince Siegfried in the Nutcracker—at the same time that his older brother is dying of Hodgkin's disease. The second section follows thirty-eight-year-old Walter as he returns to the Midwest to teach high school English and attempts to come to terms with his homosexuality after spending the intervening years working at a Manhattan dollhouse factory. Narrated in the first person, Disobedience centers around Henry Shaw as he remembers his coming-of-age at the age of seventeen. After prying into his mother's e-mail account, Henry discovers that she is having an extramarital affair. The rest of the narrative focuses on the effects and implications that this discovery brings to bear on Henry's relationships, particularly with his mother.
Critics have widely praised Hamilton for her insight into the human psyche and her effective treatment of such themes as forgiveness and suffering, often favorably comparing her novels to the works of Jane Smiley and Sue Miller. Reviewers have also lauded her efforts to create characters endowed with sensitivity and endurance, particularly the protagonists of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World. Although commentators have frequently noted the realistic portraits and evocative atmospheres of everyday Midwestern life in her novels, especially as experienced by women, some have argued that the plotting of A Map of the World is both predictable and mechanical. Some critics have also complained that Hamilton's novels tend to be overly sentimental and melodramatic, sometimes comparing her plots to those of television soap operas. However, Hamilton's supporters have asserted that her distinctive authorial voice, precise language, and subtly nuanced characterizations greatly outweigh any perceptions of formulaic plotting. Reviewers have also remarked that, despite the dominantly feminine perspectives of her early novels, Hamilton constructed a striking and believable male point of view in The Short History of a Prince. Commentators have additionally compared the stream of consciousness narration of the male protagonist in Disobedience to that of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
Judith Paterson (review date 5 February 1989)
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SOURCE: Paterson, Judith. “Labors of Love and Loss.” Washington Post Book World, 19, no. 6 (5 February 1989): 6.
[In the following review, Paterson examines the elements of classical tragedy in The Book of Ruth.]
In a return to be welcomed, love and God seem to be making their way back into fiction. Jane Hamilton's passionate and adroit first novel, The Book of Ruth, seldom shows the hand of the beginner as she unravels the tragedy of a young woman's inability to reconcile her love for her sweet, slightly deranged husband, Ruby, and her loyalty to her mother, May, a mean-spirited woman driven half-mad by a lifetime of emotional deprivation.
Ruth Dahl's troubles begin long before she is born. May's first husband dies in World War II, leaving his bride without hope of happiness. Fifteen years later she marries Ruth's father, Elmer, in as joyless a coupling as you are likely to find in fiction. Elmer stays until Ruth is 10 years old and her science-wizard brother is 12. As the dumb kid sister of the brother May worships in a kind of parody of her feelings for her lost love, the girl becomes little more than a servant and emotional punching bag in her mother's house.
Ruth is saved from the semi-literate banality of her peers by a librarian aunt and a blind woman who teaches her the classics of literature on tape, and by her own sacramental view of nature and human existence. Thus she gropes toward adulthood, a passive and inchoate young woman torn between her mother's warped views and a growing sense of herself as someone who deserves better. The internal conflict finally erupts in violence between May and Ruby—each spellbound by the evil in the other.
Tragic in the classical sense, the book leaves the heroine standing upright in a fallen world. She has lost the two people she thought she couldn't live without and gained the right to her own life and the love of her infant son.
Jane Hamilton's ambitious and satisfying first novel asks one of literature's biggest questions: what is the meaning of human suffering? In the end, she gives the old answer—to expose the truth and teach forgiveness.
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The Book of Ruth (novel) 1988; published in Great Britain as The Frogs are Still Singing, 1989
A Map of the World (novel) 1994
The Short History of a Prince: A Novel (novel) 1998
Disobedience (novel) 2000
Jay Parini (review date 24 November 1989)
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SOURCE: Parini, Jay. “Into the Nether Regions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4521 (24 November 1989): 1313.
[In the following review, Parini focuses on Hamilton's characterization in The Frogs are Still Singing, the title under which The Book of Ruth was published in Great Britain. He compares the novel's preoccupation with poverty and isolation to Carolyn Chute's Letourneau's Used Auto Parts and Susan Richards Shreve's A Country of Strangers.]
Perhaps because of the obvious and painful contrast between the rich and poor of their country, American writers from Steinbeck and James T. Farrell to Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason have been drawn to the nether regions of poverty and isolation. This vein—which contrasts with the flashier school of Yuppy fiction that has had more attention recently—continues to draw younger writers, with varying results. Carolyn Chute arrived on the scene with a bestselling first novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, casting the coldest possible eye on a small New England town where incest and other kinds of family violence occurred with chilling matter-of-factness. The veracity of her portrait was reinforced by an astonishing grasp of the local dialect. She returns to rural Maine with her second novel, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts. It is as depressing as one might expect, though a streak of optimism tints her portrait of Big Lucien Letourneau, himself the “miracle” of Miracle City. He is one of those men who “always lets his heart of gold get the better of him”; girlfriends, runaways, wives and ex-wives, hippies and ex-hippies, dogs, small children and miscellaneous hangers-on cling to Big Lucien, who has mastered Freud's art of “polymorphous perversity”. He runs the Used Auto Parts Business of the title, and it is about the only successful operation in town; indeed, everything and everyone else is a failure.
Chute is an acute sociologist, supplying an up-to-date anthology of slang words, brand names and lower class-specific habits:
Lillian and Junie both fix their hair the modern way … root and perms, they are called, the shaggy raggedy look … and both use gold clips or old bandannas to tie up their shaggy raggedy hair into frenzied ponytails. The bandannas are often red to match their lookalike red sweaters with white lambs across the chest.
She writes with off-hand poetic grace (“It is a warm mint-color evening which smells of wet streets and wet brakes”), though she occasionally strains for effect (“The moon rises before dark, a moon you can see through, like Kleenex”). For the most part, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts confirms the high promise of The Beans.
“What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts”, says Ruth Dahl, the perceptive and subtle narrator of Jane Hamilton's first novel, The Frogs are Still Singing, in which Ruth explores the full-blown “meanness” lurking in the soul of Honey Creek, a town that straddles the lonely border region of northern Illinois and Wisconsin. “I want to be like Charles Dickens and write about all the good and strange people”, Ruth says at one point. She also wants to write a “fiction book” in which the characters and events in her life meet with better ends than reality is willing to provide. Life, so far, has gone rather badly for Ruth.
Deeply tangled in a family web only partially self-spun, she is seen by everyone around her as a failure, especially compared to her brilliant older brother, Matt, who is able to use his intelligence to contrive a way out of the circle of poverty. Ruth cannot separate from Honey Creek; she clings pathetically to her unstable, bitter, and often cruel mother, May (a Dickensian figure, to be sure); later, she cannot separate from Ruby, her idle and abusive husband.
We follow Ruth's own story in clear, almost heart-breakingly hopeful language as she marries Ruby (whose main interest is smoking marijuana while he watches the re-runs of old television comedies) and occupies her days at the Trim 'N Tidy Dry Cleaners. Much of the plot turns on Ruth's role as ineffectual mediator between May and Ruby, who seem to have been predestined to hate each other. The Frogs are Still Singing is a well drawn, often tender portrait of a young woman caught in a situation of bleak cultural and material deprivation.
Susan Richards Shreve's sixth novel, A Country of Strangers, follows quickly on Queen of Hearts, which was widely admired for its lyrical style and copiously peopled story: qualities apparent here as well. Set in desolate farm country on the swamplands outside Washington DC, the novel recreates the dismal aura of hatred and anger that marked post-slavery southern life in the not-so-deep south just after the Depression. The story centres on Charley Fletcher, a young journalist who takes a job in the Office of Censorship established in the wake of Pearl Harbor. A determined liberal, he finds himself in a situation that tests his loudly professed idealism when he buys a small farm with an imposing Palladian manor house called Elm Grove, unwittingly dispossessing a powerful and extremely bitter black man called Moses Bellows, who may (we soon learn) have killed the previous owner before simply moving into Elm Grove himself—a bold move for a black man in the days when Klan violence was often unchecked.
The novel moves through the spring of 1942 into the winter of 1943, the plot turning through cycles of violence towards a sensitively and imaginatively conceived climax. A key figure in the plot is Bellows's niece, who bears the unlikely name of Prudential Dargon (she was named after the insurance company); she “was thirteen, high-tempered and bone-thin with a gentle round belly that was a baby growing into its sixth month of incubation”. Her mother has sent her to be “tamed” by her strong uncle and affectionate aunt; as it happens, it is Prudential who tames everyone else. By the end of the novel, she has taught everyone under the aegis of Elm Grove a lesson in humanity.
Suzanne L. MacLachlan (review date 3 June 1994)
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SOURCE: MacLachlan, Suzanne L. “One Woman's Map of a Troubled World.” Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 133 (3 June 1994): 13.
[In the following review, MacLachlan assesses the themes and plot of A Map of the World.]
Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth, for which she received the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel, has written another engrossing, powerful book that should attract some much-deserved attention.
A Map of the World is not an easy or light read; indeed, it takes on some of the toughest issues of modern life. But the writer's skill in describing a community and a way of life, as well as her insight into the hearts of her characters, render this story difficult to forget.
The title refers to a map of the world that the main character labored over after the death of her mother. As a girl, she would sit before the map, imagining herself “in an ideal country, alone and at peace.”
By tackling such major themes as motherhood, death, love, and child abuse. Hamilton draws us her own map of the world, one devoid of safe havens. What we are left with, however, is a better understanding of the strength of the human heart and the power to rise above calamity.
Alice and Howard Goodwin live and work with their two young daughters. Emma and Claire, on the last dairy farm in Prairie Center, Wis., on the outskirts of Racine. Most of the tightknit community keeps its distance from the family, regarding them as displaced urban hippies.
Although he suspects that the family farm will soon be obsolete, Howard is unable to imagine any other way of life. “I had wanted to spend my life caring for land, being a steward, and raising food. … Alice once said that most men must secretly want a barn, even city-dwelling men.”
Alice, who strives to be a proper farm wife and live up to Howard's expectations, constantly fears that she doesn't have the right instincts to be a good mother. Sometimes, when she leaves the girls with her best friend, Theresa, she runs home, ignores the ruin of her housekeeping and Howard's calls for assistance, and dances with abandon to Hungarian music in her bedroom with the shades drawn. Afterward, she can peacefully go out to pull weeds, drive the tractor, or make the family dinner.
One hot summer day, when it is Alice's turn to baby-sit for Theresa's two daughters, she becomes distracted looking over her map of the world. She is upstairs just long enough for Theresa's youngest child, Lizzy, to wander out to the farm's pond and drown.
While still reeling under the weight of guilt and grief, Alice is accused by another mother of having sexually abused her son. The vindictive woman expertly takes advantage of Alice's outcast status after Lizzy's death.
Soon, events spin out of control: Alice lingers in jail awaiting trial on charges of sexual abuse because Howard cannot raise bail; he and his daughters are shunned by the townspeople and lose all sense of normalcy in their lives; Theresa, struggling to come to grips with the death of her young child, is the only one able to rally around the sinking family.
“Sometimes people get so confused by how fast everything's moving they have to throw somebody out, to make them feel better. It could have been anyone, really,” Alice realizes. Although Howard was always the stronger and more stable of the two, raised to work hard and keep in motion, it is Alice who learns about the durability of the human spirit in the stillness and tedium of jail.
Hamilton writes eloquently about land, nature, and the human heart. Yet a sense of spirituality pervades A Map of the World. Alice and Howard found shelter, love, and benevolence in a farmhouse; when their home was gone, they had to look higher to find forgiveness and understanding.
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Archer, Kirstie. “A Map of the Human Heart.” Lancet 357, no. 9260 (24 March 2001): 968.
Archer offers a positive assessment of Disobedience, noting Hamilton's ability to “make a story with themes covered so many times before resonant and compelling.”
Brownrigg, Sylvia. “The Scarlet Letters.” New York Times Book Review (19 November 2000): section 7, p. 9.
Brownrigg acknowledges Hamilton's “warm” and “humane” portrayal of the modern American family in Disobedience but criticizes the novel's “inertness” and lack of immediacy.
Cassidy, Christine. Review of The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton. Lambda Book Report 6, no. 11 (June 1998): 20-2.
Cassidy compliments Hamilton's sensitive and realistic gay protagonist in The Short History of a Prince, praising the novel's emphasis on family relations and humor.
Hamilton, Jane, and Michael Schumacher. “Profile of a First Novelist: The Book of Other People.” Writer's Digest 70, no. 10 (October 1990): 28-9.
Hamilton discusses her process of conceptualizing and writing The Book of Ruth.
Johnson, Greg. “In Jane Hamilton's Novel, a Farm Family Faces Nightmarish Adversity.” Chicago Tribune (12 June 1994): section 14, p. 5.
Johnson evaluates the success of the characters, narration, and setting of A Map of the World but finds the plot mechanical and at times melodramatic.
Plunket, Robert. “Teacher in Tights.” Advocate (26 May 1998): 83.
Plunket compliments the “very credible and sympathetic portrait” of the gay male protagonist in The Short History of a Prince.
Ruckenstein, Lelia. “The Boys at the Barre.” Washington Post Book World, 28, no. 22 (31 May 1998): 7.
Ruckenstein contrasts the protagonist, themes, and tone of The Short History of a Prince with Hamilton's previous efforts, highlighting the novel's subtlety.
Shields, Carol. “Consequences of a Moment.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 22 (29 May 1994): 5.
Shields explores the pivotal event that drives the plot of A Map of the World, detailing its effects on the protagonist's relationship to her husband and the community.
Additional coverage of Hamilton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 147; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 85; and Literature Resource Center.
Richard Eder (review date 5 June 1994)
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Some Things are Unforgivable.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 June 1994): 5, 15.
[In the following review, Eder describes the principal characters of A Map of the World in the context of the novel's narrative structure and themes.]
In a patch of Wisconsin woods, late on a summer afternoon, two women stand a few feet apart, each leaning her back against a tree and swatting mosquitoes. They face the same direction; neither looks at the other. They were best friends but Alice had a moment of distraction while minding Theresa's baby, Lizzie, and the child wandered off and drowned in the farm pond. Now, days later, Alice is almost mute while Theresa talks wildly, trivially, unstoppably: a frozen swimmer and a thrashing swimmer in a pond of bottomless pain.
Still thrashing, Theresa relates her visit to a former priest who was her high school teacher and whom she once had a crush on. Albert—married, divorced and grown fat—took her to a luncheonette for Cherry Cokes. Insistently, he made her tell the entire story of her 2-year-old daughter's life, and write down each of the 57 words she had mastered. By the time Theresa finished, she realized that what Lizzie had was not a fragment of a life but an entire one, though short. She and Albert—now weeping for the child he has helped make real—began to rock “just hard enough so that one edge of the booth came up like a swing set will you know, that isn't grounded in cement?”
Still frozen, Alice thinks: “Theresa was going to talk at high speed through the seasons, through the rain and sleet and snow, until she was briny and then moss covered.”
It is not the Job-like accumulation of scourges upon Alice Goodwin and her farmer husband, Howard, that makes Jane Hamilton's second novel [A Map of the World] remarkable. Not that the scourges are trivial. There could be no more terrible combination of agony and shame than to know that a moment of absent-mindedness has allowed the death of a friend's child. Or than to be arrested and charged immediately afterward—as Alice is—with sexually abusing children at the school where she works as a nurse.
Indeed, the accumulation—the neighbors turn bitterly vindictive, the Goodwins' children are traumatized and Howard loses the farm that has been his life's dream—is as melodramatic and arbitrary as a soap opera. But then, so was Job's story (boils, yet?). It is not the particular blows of providence that exalt the Old Testament story, but a man's voice protesting the pain of our cosmic vulnerability. In A Map of the World, it is not the buildup of the two tragedies that is most distinctive—the events are told with brilliant horror but their sequence and linkages can be awkward—it is the different calligraphies they inscribe on Alice, Howard and Theresa.
Some of the same horror is at the root of Sue Miller's The Good Mother (a woman's lover is accused of sexually abusing her daughter) and Rosellen Brown's Before and After (a family is shattered when a teenage son is charged with murder). All three show how the outside world—society, the law—can make our privacies public and unrecognizable to ourselves. Or as Howard muses at one point: “I was dazed by the equation that overnight made Alice's troubles into everyone's troubles.”
The difference is the voices. Theresa's out of the circle of trees: wandering, coming apart and coming together to relate a remarkable deliverance by a fat man in a luncheonette booth; remarkable, among other things, for being both a near-miracle and entirely natural. Alice's, frozen in shame as well as grief—and in her own knotted nature—raging at Theresa's. This is only one example; throughout, A Map of the World will suddenly alter its light, revealing beneath the fabric of its characters' lives, thoughts and emotions a kind of X-ray of their souls.
The story is told alternately by Alice and Howard. Alice begins with an account of a precarious idyll. She and Howard, former hippies, more or less, have bought a farm in a transitional area. Suburbs are encroaching; the old-style rural community of Howard's dreams no longer quite exists. Instead of helping with the haying, the neighbors are more likely to get up petitions about the farm's noise, smells and effect on property values.
For Howard, a dairy farm is heaven, down to its most menial and exhausting jobs. “I always thought that work was as common and fine as air,” he will say. Alice can't quite submerge in his Arcadian dream; there is tension under the determinedly upbeat account of their life that starts the book off. Tension becomes horror the day Theresa leaves Lizzie with her. Hamilton slows the narrative to nightmare speed: Suddenly Lizzie is no longer in the room with her older sister and Alice's two children. She thinks of the pond, runs there on suddenly heavy legs, her bare feet “like two pink erasers.” A pink gingham bottom bobs on the water's surface, 15 feet out.
Days of breakdown follow. Alice's account of her paralysis—she can't take care of the children, endure the funeral, visit Theresa or do much besides sleep; and Howard's patience turns to despair—is another nightmare. It ends, oddly enough, and she goes from lethargy to hyperactivity, when the second horror falls upon the first.
The police come and arrest her. A 9-year-old schoolboy, a problem child who at one point goaded her into slapping him, has reported that she fondled him. The account seems inspired and promoted by his dysfunctional, promiscuous mother; but a communal hysteria sets in. There are other complaints, a formal charge, months in prison—until Howard sells the farm to pay the exorbitant bail—and finally a trial that frees her into a life of utterly changed and uncertain prospects.
Some of the story limps a bit. The courtroom scenes are compellingly taut, but not especially distinctive. Alice's eccentric lawyer is a grotesque that doesn't quite come off. He serves, though, to parody the processes of the law, and as part of Hamilton's questioning of the nature of present-day society. The dream of community is no longer viable; people live by fashion and slogans. The mere mention of abuse—in the absence of social ties and the ground-knowledge that they instill—is enough to set off a conflagration.
Such questions, though provocative, are no more the real heart of the book than the plot is, or the accomplished set scenes, among them a vivid account of Alice's time in jail, and of the brutal and sometimes compassionate social order set up by the inmates. Alice's harsh, illuminating vision—released from jail, she and Howard pass a wedding and she notes: “The bride had some teeth missing. Maybe she'll be covered by her husband's dental plan. Maybe she'll be able to get them fixed”—is a poetry of despair that turns, in a stunning final passage, into something like a chorale.
Howard's account of his time alone with the children as he struggles to keep his farm going, is only seemingly matter-of-fact. It is another kind of poetry, bucolic and sad. Theresa, passionate but purposeful—she and Howard fall in love and relinquish it in one single, powerfully erotic and entirely chaste movement—is a child of light. Her poetry is of a third order; like Eric Rohmer's films, its magic takes form from what is random, commonplace and disconnected.
Moureen Coulter (review date fall 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
SOURCE: Coulter, Moureen. “After the Fall.” Belles Lettres 10, no. 1 (fall 1994): 25, 27.
[In the following review, Coulter summarizes the central themes of A Map of the World, noting that Hamilton's examination of the power of forgiveness is “remarkable.”]
What does it mean to fall from grace, and where do the fallen go? Are they forever banished from their former blessedness, or can they hope to regain its heights? These theological questions have structured many a catechism over the years, but even children who learn the answers “by heart” can later have trouble applying them to the unforeseen messiness of their adult lives. Alice Goodwin, the protagonist of Jane Hamilton's remarkable new novel, A Map of the World, confesses to just such bewilderment at the beginning of her narrative:
I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn't learned that it can happen so gradually you don't lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don't necessarily sense the motion. I've found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.
Alice's fall does seem to be literally the result of “an unfortunate accident”: the death of her neighbor and best friend's two-year-old daughter Lizzy one summer morning when the child and her older sister have been left in Alice's charge. Her “stupendous error” is allowing herself to be distracted, while changing for a swim, by the rediscovery in a dresser drawer of the maps of a fictional world she had invented during her childhood. “My maps had taken over my life for months at a time,” Alice recalls wonderingly. But by the time she finishes dressing, Lizzy has left the house and made her way unaccompanied to a nearby pond, where she drowns.
“When I am forced to see those ten minutes as they actually were, when I look clearly, without the scrim of half-uttered prayers and fanciful endings, I am there, tall and gangly and clumsy and slow, crying out unintelligibly, splashing through the water to Lizzy,” Alice reports, but no amount of retrospection, however clear-sighted, can alter the outcome. The lives of Alice and her husband, Howard; of Lizzy's parents, Theresa and Dan; of both couples' other children and relatives are irrevocably and decisively altered by both the fact and the circumstances of the child's death. No one, least of all Alice, can escape the conclusion that she is to blame.
If there can be any greater torment for a woman than the loss of her own child, it may be the knowledge that she is responsible for, or at least implicated in, the loss of another. It is to Hamilton's credit that she is able to convey the paralyzing confusion of Alice's thoughts and feelings in the months that follow Lizzy's death in language that is so clear and credible. Alice's guilt isolates her by erasing the familiar patterns of communication with Howard and Theresa that had helped to demarcate her adult “map of the world.” It also renders her vulnerable to attack by people outside the boundaries drawn by marriage and close friendship, so that before the fateful summer is over Alice finds herself jailed on unrelated charges of child abuse and threatened with the loss of her own daughters. Falling from grace does indeed turn out to be a more protracted experience than she had imagined, with more hands ready to push her off of the precipice than to pull her back.
The novel ends with Alice's legal exoneration and her reconstituted family's move to a new house in a new city. The grace that she seems to have regained might best be described as a restored sense of herself and of her place in the world, her bearings according to the compass of the heart. Its source is not judgment but forgiveness: Alice's forgiveness of others, especially Howard, as much as theirs of her. This, too, is a theological truth, but one usually taught by parable rather than catechism, and that is how Alice and Howard learn it and how they teach it to us. “I had that marvelous clarity for an instant,” says Alice, “and so I understood that the forgiveness itself was strong, durable, like strands of a web, weaving around us, holding us.” Thus are the fallen raised.
Jean Hanff Korelitz (review date 20 January 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
SOURCE: Korelitz, Jean Hanff. “Slouching to Suburbia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4790 (20 January 1995): 20.
[In the following review, Korelitz praises A Map of the World for its skillful evocation of rural Midwestern life.]
Jane Hamilton's tense novel [A Map of the World] opens with the accidental drowning of a two-year-old girl. While her two daughters and her best friend's two daughters, whom she is minding, are all playing downstairs, the narrator, Alice Goodwin, dashes upstairs to look for a bathing-suit, happens on the long-forgotten map of the world she had drawn the summer of her mother's early death, and pauses over it for one breathless, elastic moment. Long enough. In just that blink of time, Lizzie Collins disappears, finds the glorious, bucolic pond on the Goodwin farm, and is lost.
You would think that would be agony enough, but the accident merely marks the onset of troubles for the Goodwin family. In the aftermath of the drowning, Alice spins into a cataclysmic depression—powerfully evoked by Hamilton—neglecting her own most basic needs and utterly incapable of caring for her family:
I was naked except for my socks. I had forgotten the order of things. I was a mother, and mothers were supposed to rise to the occasion because they had children to care for; they were to cook the stew in a crisis because there was no alternative to nourishment other than death. We were not to die until youngest child graduated from college. … How can I cook the stew when I don't know what clothes to put on next? I wanted to ask. Maybe it was better if the children died first because then a person could relax, stop worrying, and just take up grief.
Then, even at the moment she begins to pull herself together again—bolstered by the unexpected forgiveness of the dead girl's mother—the unthinkable happens: Alice is accused of sexually abusing a student at the school where she works as a nurse, is manacled and taken away. In her absence, her husband Howard takes over the narrative and the family, struggling to work the farm and care for the children, as the enormity of their trouble sinks in and the small Midwestern community on whose social outskirts they have lived rushes to shun them further: “We had always been satisfied with our circumscribed life. We had been proud, I think, to know that we could get by with so little.” Now, their few acquaintances coldly turn away and strangers openly condemn them.
As with many outrageous injustices, there is a kernel of truth in the charges against Alice. In the recent long-running sex-abuse case in a North Carolina day-care centre (which Hamilton says inspired her), the hysteria of children and parents alike and the ultimate, outrageous conviction and imprisonment of several teachers was traceable to one slap, delivered by a teacher to a misbehaving child. And Alice raised her hand to Robbie Mackessey, a sullen, damaged six-year-old whose staring unnerved her. When Robbie comes forward with his accusation and a second wave of students begin to accuse the school nurse of various perversities, Howard, sees before his wife does, that, whatever the trial brings, their life in Prairie Center, Wisconsin, is over.
It is in Hamilton's descriptions of that life that her literary gifts are most in evidence. She captures the rhythms of farming, the peculiar insanity required to undertake an endeavour so unlikely to provide security, financial or otherwise, the unspeakable beauty that changes through the seasons: “In May, when the grass was so green it hurt to look at it, the air so overpoweringly sweet you had to go in and turn on the television just to dull your senses.” This particular farming centre is slouching towards suburbia, its farms steadily being carved up into residential subdivisions. When, in the midst of all this determined progress, the Goodwins arrived, pilgrims from the city with a dream of farming, they were marked as outsiders from the start.
American reviewers have been comparing A Map of the World to Sue Miller's The Good Mother and Rosellen Brown's Before and After, those two fictional celebrations of maternal agony. It isn't difficult to see why. The novel is relentlessly painful, even with the promise of redemption which we suspect may lurk in its final pages. But Hamilton's prose offers rewards, and Alice, though never entirely likeable, earns our esteem as we watch her claw her way out of the maw.
Carol J. Pierce (review date September 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718
SOURCE: Pierce, Carol J. “Dairy Farm Tragedy.” English Journal 85, no. 5 (September 1996): 109-10.
[In the following review, Pierce highlights the realistic portrayal of daily life on Midwestern farms for women in A Map of the World, drawing thematic and character comparisons to classical tragedy.]
Books take us to lands and times we can only imagine and let us encounter characters who people a culture or an era much different from our own. This is a message we impress on our students daily. However, lately, it seems more of us are interested in the people and places of what we term the “real world.”
The recent popularity and exploding fame of Robert Waller's The Bridges of Madison County let those of us in Iowa know that people out there want to glimpse what life is like on a rural farm. But the life of lonely Francesca Johnson is not the reality of life for a woman on a farm not far away in rural, fictional Wisconsin. We can imagine for Waller fans, the fantasy of Bridges is hard to beat. But those of us who would like a more in-depth look at a modern farm woman's life should open the cover of Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World and meet the very real Alice Goodwin.
Alice Goodwin's life consists of chasing her active preschoolers, dealing with an extremely hot Wisconsin summer without the comfort of central air conditioning, and supporting her starry-eyed husband in his dream to own, operate, and even scrape out a living on one of the area's last operating dairy farms.
Alice begins by telling her own story. How will she ever face potty training Claire? Why does little Emma react so violently to not being able to pour her own milk on her cereal? When will she have a minute to do what needs to be done so that her household is as efficient and homey as that of her best friend Theresa? Alice introduces us to her life, and we can immediately relate to the everyday misfortunes and struggles that readily parallel the not-so-funny aspects of our own mundane struggles.
On this particular day, though, Alice's life will change forever. She is about to have everything that is harrying her become a minor trifle in the face of great human tragedy. To say what specifically happens would be to take away from this haunting narrative but, trust Hamilton, the plot never lets the reader go in this guaranteed page-turner. We are sucked into the life of Alice and her family the way Midwestern farm buildings can be sucked into a twisting tornado, sometimes dropped gently somewhere else, but always in an altered state—recognizable after their trip, but never the way they once were. Alice, Howard, their daughters, and their friends are about to have a similar experience. The reader stays tuned to this book for much the same reason an ancient Greek theater-goer stayed glued to a tragedy by Sophocles. There is a need for us to see how the main character will handle herself in the face of life's most challenging turmoil.
Alice screams silently, “I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO.” Her husband's solution is to “keep in motion.” This she does, comparing herself to a Biblical Job and his all-too-familiar trials. What she does to face her days creates an amazingly tenable story with a lesson we know to be true, but would rather ignore. In our seemingly secure and simple lives, there lurks the possibility for all of us that what happens to Alice and Howard Goodwin could also happen to us or someone we love: this book is the stuff of which headlines are made in a dozen local papers every morning.
I read A Map of the World while on vacation in Wisconsin. Reading a St. Paul newspaper that week, I found at least four stories in the real news to parallel the events of Hamilton's compelling novel. Though it might be more pleasant to think of life in terms of Waller's farm wife and her knight in shining armor, many will prefer this fiction with a more formidable edge. Alice and Howard Goodwin, though far from perfect, have the stuff of real-every-day-down-in-the-mud-and-grit-of-life heroes. A reader will not soon forget their story and their struggle to “keep moving.”
Jane Hamilton and Sybil Steinberg (interview date 2 February 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2135
SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Sybil Steinberg. “Jane Hamilton: A Kinship with Society's Outcasts.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 5 (2 February 1998): 68-9.
[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses the inspiration for the characters and themes of her novels through The Short History of a Prince.]
A young man coming of age in suburban Illinois in the 1970s, obsessed with ballet, literature and classical music, aware that he's gay but determined to remain closeted. The protagonist of a novel by David Leavitt, Alan Gurganus or Dale Peck? Not this time. While these gay male writers would seem to own the territory, it's a female novelist praised for her depiction of women who has dared to trespass in an area generally reserved for men who have lived the experience.
The Short History of a Prince, Jane Hamilton's third novel, out soon from Random House isn't the first time this author, who claims apologetically to have had “a very ordinary life,” has so effectively imagined herself into the mind of a character thrown to its fringes. Talking with PW during a recent visit from her Wisconsin home to her publisher's Manhattan offices, Hamilton declares a spiritual kinship with the troubled central characters of her three novels: Ruth, the emotionally abused but brave and resilient protagonist of The Book of Ruth (1988), whose dreams of domesticity vanish in an eruption of violence; Alice, the restless, self-destructive heroine of A Map of the World (1994), who is responsible for the death of a child and spends time in jail falsely accused of sexual abuse; and, now, dreamy, aesthetic Walter, whose lonely, unfulfilled life is defined by the secret he dares not share. “I spent my entire youth being in love with gay men because they were the most interesting and compassionate people I knew,” Hamilton says. “For me, writing Walter didn't feel like a stretch.”
In The Short History of a Prince, teenager Walter McCloud's passion for ballet is not sanctified by talent. Despite his artistic aspirations and his absorption in classical technique, he is awkward and ungainly. His desire to dance the role of Prince Siegfried in a production of The Nutcracker is granted in an ironic manner that shames him, and this dark fulfillment is followed by the crucifying experience of his life, when he's discovered wearing a ballerina's tutu and is sadistically humiliated by the ballet master and mocked by the young man he loves.
Though Hamilton herself was never publicly embarrassed, she keenly remembers her own adolescent despair at failing to become a graceful dancer. “My legs were big; my derriere was big; I had no turnout; my feet were flat—but still I really loved it,” she recalls. “What I bring to the character of Walter is my experience of dancing and of being the worst in the class. Probably most people feel that way some of the time, but I internalized the feeling. I felt I was out of the mainstream.”
Inspiration came from another source as well. The character of Walter McCloud is also based on her dearest friend in high school, to whom the book is dedicated. The inscription reads: “For JMW—for Boonkie.” According to Hamilton, Boonkie is “the spiritual twin” to Walter. “In some ways, Walter is the marriage of this friend and myself. I wanted the word ‘prince’ in the title because Walter is a prince in every way.” She thinks that the characters in her previous books were “only warm-ups” for Walter, that his quiet suffering and endurance is faithful to the longings and insecurities of outsiders in society who take refuge in the spiritual solace of literature, dance and music.
SONGS OF ISOLATION
Hamilton herself projects nothing but prairie wholesomeness to jaded New York eyes. She is sturdily unpretentious, with none of the professional glamour that bestselling authors generally radiate. It's not just her well-scrubbed, makeup-free complexion, her hair yanked back and anchored with an elastic band, or her comfortable outfit of baggy sweater and tights. She has a strong jaw, a clear and level gaze and a modest and candid way of talking about her problems with the creative process.
Moving in 1982 to the small rural community of Rochester, Wisc., population 1000, was a crystallizing experience of social alienation for Hamilton. “I felt I was an anthropologist in a foreign country,” she says. Born in 1957, she had been raised in suburban Oak Park, Ill., the youngest of five siblings in a close-knit home where reading was a cherished pastime and writing a given. Her mother composed poetry; a verse in Jane's honor called “A Song for a Fifth Child” was published in the Ladies' Home Journal. Her grandmother wrote for a feminist newspaper and tried her hand at novels. “I just assumed that if you were a girl-child you were supposed to grow up and write,” she says.
Whatever her ambitions, they went underground when she graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota in 1979, and impulsively stopped off on the way to New York (and the vague offer of a job in publishing) to visit a friend who was working on a farm for the summer. “They needed help; it was picking season. So I stayed a week, then I stayed two weeks, a month. I fell in love with my friend's cousin, Bob Willard, and I married him. It took me about 10 years to think I could belong there. And maybe another four years to think I wanted to belong there.” Having children, a boy and a girl now 13 and 10, contributed to her acceptance in the tight-knit community. The crucial factor was her services as president of the board of the public library, a labor of love she calls “a lifesaver.”
Looking back, Hamilton says she's grateful for the detour. Her applications to graduate schools had been rejected; “I felt bad about that, but I knew that I wasn't ready for a high-powered graduate program. Ultimately, it was good for me to be in this tiny town where the book review didn't come. I was in my own little fog trying to figure out the forms for myself. I wrote, but I didn't know what I had to say yet. So it was serendipitous that I ended up in the middle of nowhere.”
Except for the four months of intense activity during apple-picking season, Hamilton had a lot of free time in which to try her hand at short fiction. “I spent basically three years writing one story,” she says with a rueful laugh. Eventually she sold it to Harper's. She won “a few” Wisconsin Art Board grants and an NEA grant. But she was still searching for her subject.
The inspiration came from an event that rocked Wisconsin's rural communities: in a nearby town, a man murdered his mother-in-law. Hamilton recalls feeling immediate empathy for the murderer's wife. She herself was living in a very small house with her husband and his aged aunt. “Even though I loved these new relations of mine, I could understand how a situation could get out of hand. I was young, I was frustrated. I needed my own territory and I didn't know how I was going to get it. And so I took my frustrations and plugged them into someone entirely different from me. I wanted to see if I could slip into someone else's skin.”
What she found was a strange emotional bond with her inadequately educated, culturally deprived and miserably poor heroine. “The Book of Ruth is fueled by Ruth's voice because I felt possessed by Ruth,” Hamilton says. It was not easy to sell such a downbeat slice of life. The agent Hamilton had used for her short stories was not interested in the novel. When a friend gave her a list of agents, Hamilton dutifully worked through the alphabet, sending out the manuscript and receiving rejection letters in return. “Finally I was at the end of the alphabet. The last name was Amanda Urban.” With no idea of Urban's clout in the industry, Hamilton made her “last stab. She called me within a week and said, ‘Who are you?’ She sold it in another week,” Hamilton reports.
Katrina Kenison at Ticknor & Fields bought The Book of Ruth. Reviews were good, and Hamilton didn't care that sales were modest. Before Ruth won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award in 1989, Martha Levin at Doubleday/Anchor bought the paperback rights for a “really small sum, maybe ＄2000,” Hamilton says with no discernible regret.
The favorable critical reception and the prestigious prize, in fact, threw Hamilton into the proverbial second book slump. She was “paralyzed,” she says, by the thought that she'd now have to produce a book every two years. But as the self-imposed deadline came and went, she was relieved to find that she was again “writing a book just for myself.” She began what became A Map of the World after a child in her son's day-care center drowned in his family's swimming pool. The initial chapters, which express the almost palpable anguish of the heroine, who is responsible for the death of her best friend's daughter, were surprisingly easy to write. Problems arose when she couldn't figure out how the story would proceed after that crucial scene. Feeling adrift, she wrote three versions of the novel, each with a different middle and ending. “Those books were terrible, just terrible!” she groans.
Meanwhile, Hamilton had been impressed by a documentary about a couple who were falsely convicted of sexually molesting children in a day-care center. A short time later, she herself was angrily confronted by her best friend for letting their two small daughters take off their clothes on a hot summer day. Accused of unnatural behavior for something she considered perfectly normal, Hamilton was undone. “I didn't want to write another trendy novel about sexual molestation,” she says, but the subject seemed inescapable.
Placing the book was not a sure thing. Kenison had left Ticknor & Fields, and the imprint was soon to fold. According to Hamilton, Binky Urban again found the editor with the appropriate sensibility—Deb Futter at Doubleday. (Hamilton followed Futter, whom she calls her “soul mate,” when she later went to Random House.)
Even before Futter saw A Map of the World, however, Hamilton had the help of another kind of editor: Steven Shahan, a lawyer in upstate New York who is married to Elizabeth Weinstein, Hamilton's college roommate, and still the first reader of her work. (A Map of the World is dedicated to both of them.) Shahan led Hamilton through the legal process of a trial. He was “absolutely indispensable,” she says.
Critics remarked on the stunningly accurate portrayal of Alice's cell mates, most of them black and victimized by life. Though quite different in their histories, the women share an admiration of Oprah Winfrey. Hamilton had never seen the show when, in 1988, one of the producers called and invited her to lunch as a surprise for Oprah, who had loved The Book of Ruth. At that time, Oprah was not yet established as a messianic force in the publishing world, and Hamilton was amazed that Oprah quoted lines from the book from memory.
Several years later, when Oprah announced the formation of her TV book club, The Book of Ruth was her third choice. Immediately, sales of the paperback edition, which had been selling well (to the tune of 75,000 copies), soared; the current net figure is well over a million. Given the often finicky market for midlist fiction, Hamilton says, “Oprah does what God couldn't do.”
The reference to the deity is only half jocular. Like all of her protagonists, who search for meaning in a world seemingly devoid of solace, Hamilton has only a marginal adherence to conventional Christian faith. “I've always broken out in hives when I go into any organized religious situation,” she says. All three of her protagonists find that biblical injunctions mock the truth of their lives, and yet each of them arrives at a moment of understanding. Transcendence comes to Walter just when he is about to lose his family's three-generational homestead, the one element that's “essential to his having any faith at all in life,” Hamilton says.
“I think of my characters being extremely Christian in the way they lead their lives,” she adds. Maybe my books have a lot of religious grappling because I'm still trying to figure it out for myself.”
Having experienced the disapproval of some of Rochester's churchgoing ladies over The Book of Ruth, she is bracing herself for another negative reaction, this time for placing a gay hero in a town very much like Rochester. Yet she feels she is a writer with a mission: “I want to express something important here. I really love Walter and I want other people to love him, too. He has a special place in my heart.”
Richard Eder (review date 29 March 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Dollhouse.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 March 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of The Short History of a Prince, praising the novel's “sympathy and nerve.”]
If you are William and the world won't accept you as William and you have to keep fighting so that it will, then what do you call yourself once it does? The question stirs uneasily within what is conveniently known as gay fiction; it is one that Jane Hamilton—married to an apple grower and mother of two—explores with sympathy and nerve.
Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, writes hard novels beautifully. In The Short History of a Prince, she tries to see beyond what, in the first full literary generation, has tended understandably to show itself as a kind of gay exceptionalism.
Her valiant and precarious protagonist, Walter McCloud, graduates from his short history as a gay prince into a long future as a human commoner. His identity is in no way blurred. It simply undergoes the fate of all identities: to be one among those elements that make up our common lot and that bump, bruise and abrade each other to become parts of a whole, that is defined less by what it is than by where it goes. Gay is the route that some of us must take to arrive at being human.
The Short History of a Prince places Walter, waif-like, in the bosom of a large and ebullient Midwestern clan that gathers to spend summers and holidays in a rambling Victorian house on a Wisconsin lake. The in-gathering goes back several generations. Its ritual swimming, sailing, meals and the confection of a special lard cake are tribal rites conducted with varying degrees of insistence and skepticism by Walter's two aunts and his mother.
Champagne bottles from decades of celebration are labeled and preserved; so is a wall-sized Pegboard hung with framed family photographs. When it falls over and smashes—one of the three sisters is suspected of having taken a hand, or rather a foot—this may or may not be understood as a whiff of subversion.
Hamilton's novel goes back and forth between the early '70s, when Walter was in his teens, to the mid-'90s. It charts his difficult journey partly in terms of his changing relationship over the years to the summer house and the family that gathers there and partly in terms of the changes in his regular life.
As a teenager, he is a passionate, but no more than competent, ballet student, commuting to class from his Chicago suburb along with two more gifted friends. Mitch, beautiful but lazy, will eventually give up dance; Susan, brilliant and dedicated, will go on to join the New York City Ballet, leave it after the death of George Balanchine, marry and move to Miami to dance with the local company.
Walter, Mitch and Susan form a tight triangle—isosceles, like most such triangles. Mitch and Susan are a couple; Walter, their necessary audience, wit and didactic authority on all things musical and balletic. He half-suppresses, half-conceals his passion for Mitch, allowing himself, for a time, no more than the fantasy of putting on a tutu and dancing as his ballerina partner.
Ripe with artistic intensity and erotic implication, the trio is a tiny hothouse kingdom in the bland Chicago suburbs. Walter, as adolescents can do, converts the role of odd man out into that of little lame prince. The world presses in on such principalities, though, and inevitably there is a breach. Dan, Walter's older brother, is stricken with cancer, and their parents exhaust their time and attention in long hospital vigils. Much worse, Susan falls in love with the sick boy and helps their mother to nurse him.
Walter's triangular realm collapses. Susan has opened its gates to the enemy: the family ties and obligations it was meant to be free of. In the wreckage, Walter and the rejected Mitch begin to have clandestine sex. For Mitch, basically heterosexual, it is simply a brute release; for Walter, it is romantic ecstasy.
Until the night, that is, when his parents come home unexpectedly. While Mitch hides under the bed, Walter's mother sits on top of it to tell him that Dan is about to die. It is the book's pivot: life and death upon the bed; beneath, the remains of a fantasy that cannot withstand them.
Short History does not work the pivot all at once. Hamilton is adept at climactic moments, but her true quality lies in weaving them into the long procession of time and human contradictions. Shuttling between past and present, she depicts by increments Walter's growth out of fantasy into reality. There is pain in both.
The fantasy lies not in her protagonist's sexual orientation and desires but in his walling them off from other parts of his nature that are at least as profound, perhaps more so. He is an American of the Midwest; as the years go by, its values tug more and more strongly, and so do his ties with his extensive and turbulently human family.
From stormy adolescent rejection, the book has him take a calmer distance with a move to New York. He lives an untrammeled gay life there until his friends begin to die. But there is something else: After casting about professionally, he finds odd satisfaction working for an artisan who makes elaborately detailed dollhouses for the very rich.
Dollhouses—while a thousand miles to the northwest is the full-sized lakeside exemplar that he has fled and cannot manage to lose. Hamilton wields her symbols with audacity; mostly she wields them with great skill. They are her sheep dogs, sinuously herding along a story whose strength and weakness both lie in the same thing: a radiant didacticism.
Walter escapes from his escape: He returns to the Midwest to take up a job teaching English in a dreary Wisconsin town. He deals with cloddish students, a white-bread community to whom the notion of a gay lifestyle is unimaginable and with no cultural life at all. He accepts loneliness and isolation; all because, however difficult, it is better to teach children than to make dollhouses.
Hamilton portrays his new life with vivid skill. It is a delicately detailed frost-bound picture with one or two signs of a spring—a responsive student, a promising school musical, his discovery of his talent for teaching—that will never be particularly lush. The lakeside family reunions, with their muted turbulence, are drawn well, though they are too long and sometimes fall flat. They are handsomely adorned vehicles without much gasoline.
As the years go by, not only does Walter change, so does his perception of his family. He begins to recognize the individuality in what had seemed an oppressive solidity. The two aunts emerge with splendid particularity, and his mother and a seemingly conventional younger sister turn out to be the most unexpected and engaging characters in the book.
Hamilton's admirable affection for Walter leads her, near the end, to shower him with rewards that it is beyond even an author's power to bestow. Occasionally there seem to be too many sheep dogs nuzzling him toward maturity. Still, it is an admirable maturity, one that accepts the harsh friction and bitter frustration of bringing together the sexual side of himself with the familial and communal. At the end, he retains the hope of finding a lover—out of town for any foreseeable future—and makes plans to stay on over the years.
“It might take a few years but eventually with the staging of the right musical comedy, with the success of a student or two, the people of Otten would begin to see him. In the meantime, they might feel the vibration, the sound of his own quiet voice echoing out into the town, the words he'd been saying since the beginning: I am among you.”
Touching words, and they will not convince some. Still, a book's function is not only to convince. Sometimes it is to encourage.
Jane Hamilton and Judith Strasser (interview date May-June 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5073
SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Judith Strasser. “Daily Harvest: At Work with Novelist Jane Hamilton.” Poets & Writers 26, no. 3 (May-June 1998): 32-45.
[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses her family and career during two meetings with Strasser—one at a public reading, the other at Hamilton's home—detailing the effects of The Book of Ruth on both areas of Hamilton's life.]
Awards and royalties, rave reviews and Oprah aside, practical Jane Hamilton follows a self-prescribed diet of daily doggedness when it comes to writing. She says she starts by sitting in her study, which overlooks her family's orchard, and “committing bad words to paper.” What she winds up with, as is once again confirmed by her just-published third novel, The Short History of a Prince, is a highly polished work of art.
My college-age son and I arrive at the Harry Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield, Wisconsin, 20 minutes before novelist Jane Hamilton is scheduled to speak. More than one hundred folding chairs have been set out in rows. We look for a place to sit, but all the chairs are either filled with bodies, or draped with jackets and coats. A bookshop staff member says she expects two hundred people to show. Jed and I take up positions on the floor, leaning back against the hardcover fiction shelves. By the time the staff member introduces Jane—“Here, straight from The Oprah Winfrey Show”—a standing-room-only crowd, too large to count, stretches beyond the chairs, past the shelves, into the center of the store.
“This is my neighborhood bookstore,” Jane tells us. She's wearing a long velour dress, a dark blue-green, simply cut. (Later, when I watch a tape of Jane on Oprah, I see the same dress. Maybe she bought it for the show.) Although she's in her thirties, she looks like a graduate student. She wears no makeup. Her long brown hair sweeps back from a high forehead and falls gracefully forward over one shoulder and breast. She tells the audience she had to reread The Book of Ruth before she appeared on Oprah; she hadn't looked at it since the Anchor Books paperback came out eight years before, in 1989. (Ticknor & Fields published the hardcover in 1988.) “It was an odd experience—as if I was meeting a long-lost dead relative who'd come back to life. I wanted to say, You're dead! Go away!” Her voice fills with mock irritation and she makes a shooing gesture with her hands.
Everyone laughs—a couple hundred middle-aged women and ten (I counted) men.
Jane Hamilton tries not to think about whether she's a “woman's writer.” “I hate it!” she says. “You go into bookstores, and everything's divided: gay and lesbian, black, Hispanic. Why can't everybody be all together? We're all writing fiction.” But Hamilton's first two books feature female protagonists who struggle with problems that ring true to many flesh-and-blood American women. Ruth Dahl, who narrates her own life in The Book of Ruth, suffers from a severe case of low self-esteem, brought on by poverty and physical and emotional abuse. In A Map of the World (Doubleday, 1994), Alice Goodwin's life falls apart—she suffers, as she puts it, “a fall from grace”—following the kind of momentary lapse of attention that afflicts every harried mother of young children. Women empathize with Ruth and Alice. And women buy more novels than men. Maybe for those reasons—or maybe because Oprah Winfrey's book club has just featured The Book of Ruth and Oprah's audience is predominantly female—many more women than men have braved the slick roads and bitter January night to meet Jane Hamilton at a bookstore in a suburban Milwaukee mall.
Jane reads a short passage from the end of The Book of Ruth, a paragraph or two. “Perhaps Ruby was sick,” the novel's narrator says about the husband who nearly killed her. The room falls completely still. “I'm sure I wasn't a perfect specimen either. … A person has to fight the meanness that sometimes comes with you when you're born, sometimes grows if you aren't in lucky surroundings. … The Bible is right on one score: it doesn't do one bit of good to render evil for evil.” When Jane finishes, she says she was stunned, on rereading, to find these words. She'd forgotten that Ruth was so compassionate. And then she tells her admirers that she'll be happy to answer their questions. At first, no hands go up. There's long, awkward silence. “But if you don't want to do that,” she jokes, “we could all sing ‘Kumbaya.’”
Funny, plain-spoken, without any illusions about fame, Hamilton still shows up at the Madison Farmer's Market to sell Macoun and Lodi apples and apple cider from the Ela Orchard stand. She and her husband, Bob Willard, live at the orchard in Rochester, on land that has been in Willard's family since his great-great-grandfather settled in southeastern Wisconsin before the Civil War. The Book of Ruth is set in a rural community much like Jane's; the novel, Jane tells a questioner, is “extremely loosely based” on an incident that occurred in the neighborhood. A man killed his mother-in-law. The people had been orchard customers, people Bob's Aunt Mary knew.
Six weeks after Jane's bookstore appearance, I head east on U.S. 12 to drive the 80 miles from Madison to Rochester. It's foggy, a gray and brown landscape caught between winter and spring. Withered leaves on ragged corn stubble wave like flags in the wind. Dirty snowbanks line the road; ice crusts low-lying fields. But the willows are greening. Some fields have been plowed. I follow Jane's directions past the leafless orchard to the white clapboard house that faces a barn, an old stone silo, a windmill in the front yard. Jane greets me warmly and welcomes me into her house, all white walls and wood, recently remodeled. The construction project, begun the year after A Map of the World hit the New York Times best-seller list, seems a tangible manifestation of Jane's success. It transformed a tiny, dark farmhouse that Jane says was “falling to pieces” into a home with a modern kitchen and spacious rooms flooded with natural light. There's nothing ostentatious or fancy about the place. It reflects Jane's practical, down-to-earth nature.
I ask her how the family coped with the disruption of such a big construction project. “We had men working in the house for nine months,” she says, “but it was so hopeful, I refused to let myself go crazy.” Upstairs, she has a room of her own, a long, narrow studio with bookshelves lining the walls. When she looks up from her computer, she sees the apple tree that bears the fort in which her son and daughter play, and the rolling hills and orchard beyond.
She feeds me homemade cornbread and black bean soup in the big, airy farmhouse kitchen. I sit on a chair; she pulls up a rough-hewn bench, “an Ela family relic” that belonged to Bob's great-great-grandfather. I tell her that I was surprised, after reading her books, that she didn't start out with an autobiographical novel, as many young novelists do. She laughs. “Some people have had really dramatic and interesting lives by the time they're twenty-five,” she explains, “and I hadn't, particularly. I'd exhausted the drama in four stories. But also I look at Ruth and I know full well why I wrote that. I was living across the road in the big orchard house, in a tiny downstairs apartment with an eighty-year-old woman [Bob's Aunt Mary] and my husband-to-be.” Aunt Mary ran the orchard with her brother Ben; Ben, his wife, and their children also lived in the house. “And I loved them, they were wonderful, interesting, generous people, and still—” Jane pauses. The older generation, she explains, had a Depression mentality. “You didn't drive to town [Burlington, six miles away] unless there was a whole carful of people with a month's worth of errands.” It took only 50 minutes to drive to Milwaukee, but Jane couldn't just go there to visit a bookstore. Her life was full of love and rewarding work—and still she felt stifled. “I didn't have anywhere to go or be. I wanted to explore how and why and when and where you explode because you don't have your own territory.”
Jane's own story may not be dramatic, but it is the stuff of writerly fantasy: a young woman with no formal training applies herself to her craft, wins prizes, makes the best-seller list. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago, famous for its liberal politics, integrated housing, and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Her father, an engineer, worked as a stress analyst for General Motors; her mother, Ruth, was a freelance journalist and theater critic for the Chicago Daily News, and a sometime poet. In 1957, The Ladies' Home Journal published “A Song for the Fifth Child,” a poem Ruth Hamilton wrote to honor Jane's birth. The piece was later reprinted in several anthologies, and was appropriated (without permission) for nursery needlepoint kits.
As the last of five children—and the youngest by five years—Jane recalls that “there was really no need for me to talk. I was in a family of great talkers. I had really funny brothers.” She had trouble competing. “I felt comfortable expressing myself on paper, and I felt I could be clever [on paper] in a way that I couldn't be verbally.” Jane's grandmother and mother had both been writers; it seemed a natural path to take. But Jane had only modest expectations for herself. At Carleton College, in Minnesota, she majored in English and wrote a couple of short stories when she took the English department's two “Craft of Writing” classes. One day, she was in the basement of the English building, and she heard a voice drifting down the stairwell from the third floor. It was a professor she admired, telling someone that Jane would write a novel some day. “And I was completely shocked, because I had written one or two ten-page-stories, and I thought I had said everything that was in me. And the fact that he thought I would do that was just staggering.”
The summer after she graduated, she set out for New York to become a writer. She'd lined up a job “reading slush in the children's books department at Dell.” On the way east, she stopped at the Ela Orchard to visit a college friend. The friend turned out to have a cousin. They needed help with the apple harvest. Jane pitched in for a few weeks. She liked the life, she fell in love, and she gave up the idea of going to New York. “I knew I didn't really have editorial skills,” she says. “I was completely unprepared for the real world. I wanted to be somewhere with nice people whom I could cook with, and catch my breath after college. It was very fortuitous.”
In her early years at the orchard, Jane lived in the big house with Bob and his extended family. She spent summers and falls doing hard, physical labor. “And then I had winter and spring to kind of fumble along [with the writing] and figure it out.” She wrote for her own pleasure. “I assumed I'd never be published because people had told me it was impossible.” She thinks she continued to write because she didn't go to New York. “It was a great thing to be here [at the orchard], just working at the forms by myself, and not talking about it, not reading The New York Times Book Review every week, and not worrying about who was doing what down the block.”
Still, Jane felt she was “missing out on something crucial” because she didn't have any formal training in writing. She applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop; she was rejected. “I knew I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't confident enough to withstand that kind of scrutiny.” Nonetheless, the rejection stung.
Then, in 1980, a summer intern at Harper's pulled one of Jane's stories out of the slush. “I don't know who that was. I wish I did,” Jane says. “That person really launched me.” Harper's fiction editor, Helen Rogan, called on Jane's birthday, offering to buy the story and apologizing that she could only pay ＄500 for it. The money seemed a fortune to Jane, but the greater fortune was less tangible. “It was a rough story, and she helped me shape it. She gave me the gift of a great editor. She spent a lot of time with me, and that made me think I could spend time on my writing.”
Not long after, Jane spent two months at Ragdale, a writing retreat in Lake Forest, Illinois. There she met several writers who had graduated from Iowa. “It was like being in the same litter. You hook up with people who share your sensibilities and can maybe be constructive critics. So I got that, without having to go into debt or go through the rigors of a [graduate] program I wasn't ready for.”
The Book of Ruth began as a 10-page short story that Jane describes as “the book, condensed.” She worked on it for a year and a half. “Then someone said, ‘It's too intense to be a story.’” She spent another year turning it into a novel, finishing the first draft in 1984 just as her son Ben was born. After two more years of work on revisions, Jane began her search for a publisher. She worked through a list of agents, but found no one willing to take on the book. Then she sent the manuscript to a friend's editor at Harper & Row. He passed it on to someone else. A year later, that editor called to say she thought Ruth would be a good young adult novel; it just needed some cutting and changing. Jane disagreed, and took the manuscript back. She started to work through a new list of agents, given to her by a friend who had taken a workshop with fiction writer David Leavitt (Arkansas: Three Novellas, Houghton Mifflin, 1997; Family Dancing, Warner Books, 1991). She chose a name from the list at random, and sent the manuscript out. Two weeks later, Amanda Urban called to say she had sold the book. Jane mailed the completed manuscript to Ticknor & Fields just before the birth of her daughter, Hannah, in 1987.
Readers love The Book of Ruth because they love Ruth, the impoverished, uneducated young woman who narrates the story of her life with an abusive mother, a husband who's both emotionally damaged and mentally slow, and an infant son. Ruth retains her dignity and compassion under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Oprah Winfrey read The Book of Ruth when it first came out, in 1988. “I was overwhelmed,” she told her TV book club in 1997. “I would wake up in the morning, wondering what Ruth was doing.”
Jane did the same, during the five or six years she worked on the book. “I had the Ruth channel going all the time as I lived my life,” she tells her Brookfield bookstore audience. Creating the character, she says, was an act of imagination. “I think some people have the idea that all you need to do is write from life. But I don't know anybody, really, like Ruth. And I'm not Ruth. She has a gift that I don't have—always seeing the good in things.”
Still, the portrait of Ruth clearly draws on Jane's experience as a young mother. The scenes in which Ruth talks about Justy, her infant son, are among the most tender and convincing in the novel. “If I ever have the chance to go back and live my days over,” Ruth says, “the first months with Justy are the ones I'd choose. It was like real life, how I always imagined it was supposed to be. … I kept asking myself, Am I a real live woman? Is my body actually making the milk in my breasts? Is this truly my husband who's handing me the talcum powder so I can make our baby clean and dry? I asked questions constantly, to make sure it all wasn't one magic cream puff.”
Jane grew so attached to Ruth that she cried as she drove home from the post office, after sending the book off to Ticknor & Fields. “I remember … saying, ‘I love you, Ruth,’” she told Oprah. “‘I hope you have kind treatment. And I hope people love you as much as I do.’”
And people did. The Book of Ruth won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel of 1988. Oprah Winfrey loved the book so much that her producer invited Jane to the studio for lunch with the star. This was nearly a decade before Winfrey launched her famous book club, and Jane had never watched Oprah, never even heard of her. “I asked my publicist, ‘Do I have to do this?’” she laughs. “The publicist said yes.”
Jane left her two preschool-age children at home and went to Chicago. The producer had planned the lunch as a surprise for Oprah: a special meet-the-author treat. Jane remembers sitting in the waiting room, reading Simone de Beauvoir's feminist treatise, The Second Sex, while Oprah taped back-to-back shows, one about fathers and daughters who can't communicate and another about battered wives. After the taping, the producer ushered Jane into “the Oprah empire” backstage. Oprah spent the meal quoting her favorite parts of the book from memory.
Looking back, it's clear that by 1989, Jane's career was well launched. Back then, it was not so obvious. Even after The Book of Ruth was published, Jane says, she was frustrated and irritable. She slices two oranges and hands me a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. “I don't know what young women think now. But my generation was the first that was told we could do everything. And that is really a lie.” In the late 1980s, she and Bob had no money for day care. They shared the computer on which Bob kept orchard accounts and “were always having a standoff” over who could use it at night. Jane worked in their bedroom “with laundry everywhere.” After Hannah's birth, she could only find time to write in two-hour chunks every other day, “which meant I was always losing my thread.”
Fellowships from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts were “critical,” Jane says. They came at a time when money was scarce, and made it possible for her to pay for day care, buy her own computer, and rent a small office in town. “I was in the mall, between the plumber and the travel agent.” The walls were thin, and she could hear the travel agents fielding their calls. “I thought of us as engaged in the same enterprise, travel of some sort.” It was in this storefront office, behind a plate glass window screened with curtains Bob's Aunt Mary had batiked, that Jane began to write A Map of the World.
Jane's mother had reported how much her friends admired The Book of Ruth. “They kept saying, ‘It will be so hard to top this one,’” Jane says. She believed them. Working on the second novel, Jane had to learn to silence the critics, external and internal. She also had to learn how to plot a work of fiction.
“There's no plot in The Book of Ruth,” Jane insists. Ruth's story came to her “all in a stream.” But in A Map of the World, plotting was essential. And Jane had never learned how to create a plot. “All I had to go by was what I learned in seventh grade from Mrs. Driggs, which was the old Aristotle diagram, the inverted check mark. Build-build-build to your conflict, then you have it, and then there's resolution.”
The story begins as Alice Goodwin, a school nurse and farmer's wife, is watching a neighbor's child. The child wanders off and drowns in the farm's small pond. Jane spent several years trying to figure out what happened next. She says that she really wrote four distinct novels before she arrived at A Map of the World. In each draft, the child drowns and Alice gets in trouble. In the first version, she goes to a Sufi community in upstate New York to try to sort things out. In the second, she goes to visit her husband's aunt. In the third, she seeks comfort from her own “sort of deranged aunt.” Finally, Jane realized that Alice had to work out her own problems in her own community, and that the novel was about her community and her marriage. “And then I got it.” In the fourth, and final, version, Alice fights charges of child abuse, as well as an enveloping grief that sours her relationships with her own husband and children. It took Jane five years to get the plot. “It was not a fun process, I have to say.”
The process may have been painful, but it was ultimately successful. Reviewers called A Map of the World “a spectacularly taut drama,” and both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club chose it as an alternate selection. But what kept Jane writing, during those difficult years?
“I knew I had to get Alice out of the trouble,” she says. “I'd gotten her into this mess. I felt compelled by her.”
Ironically, although Alice is, like Jane, a farm wife and an essentially middle-class professional person, she was more difficult to write than Ruth. “I didn't always like Alice. She irritated me sometimes, and I worried about her being irritating to readers. There's a rawness to her. She's very judgmental.”
Jane also struggled with the question of who should narrate this second novel. She remembered that John Cheever said a writer has to earn the privilege of writing in first person by learning to write in the third person. “I'd only written one story in my life in the third person, and I thought, Okay, now I have to learn to do this.” Jane tried to write the first two or three versions of Map in the third person. She says they were “very stiff.” Finally she realized that the story belonged to Alice and her husband, Howard, and she permitted Alice to narrate the first and last sections of the book and Howard, the middle third.
Someone in the Brookfield audience wonders whether Jane has to work at writing, “or does it all just well up and come out?” Jane shakes her head. “I work at it every day. It's actually fairly plodding work.” Over lunch, she tells me that she learned an artist's discipline as a child. She was a very serious ballet student for five years, commuting into downtown Chicago for lessons every day. But her legs were not set properly in her hips for classical ballet, and as a result, she had trouble with her feet. A doctor insisted that she stop dancing when she was 11. But the ballet training has served her well. “Ballet is very, very hard, and it hurts. The teachers were harsh and demanding, and we worked. I think about my writing, and think that a lot of people have a lot of talent and end up not doing anything with it because they don't have that discipline. I have dogged, methodical ways of working rather than unbridled talent. I'm in there every day and just have my nose to it.”
Jane's “methodical ways of working” involve multiple drafts and many years on a single project. She says that the beauty of working on a book for a long time is that “it teaches you. Writing one draft—what fun would that be?”
The hardest part of the process is getting the first draft out, “committing bad words to paper and knowing it's not going to be very good. Trying to find the form of it.” When she's completed one draft, she goes back to the beginning and rewrites the entire manuscript. Then, when she's “pretty sure of it,” she reads it aloud, first to herself, and then to her husband. “Bob has an unerring instinct. He'll say, ‘An eleven-year-old would never say that,’ and he's right. He doesn't say much, but what he says is always right.”
Jane says reading the work aloud is extremely important, because it's so different in the ear and on the page. She listens for rhythm, for the credibility of dialogue, for word placement and repetition. “It's everything,” she says. “It's really about getting to know it, and know it as well as I possibly can.” And when she reads it to Bob, “it sounds totally different hearing through his ears.” Finally, when the manuscript is ready for line-editing, she sends it to Deb Futter, her editor at Random House.
Futter raves about Jane, calling her “a heartbox, one of the most delightful, down-to-earth people I've ever worked with. Dealing with her is like reading her books, the level of human compassion is so high.” Jane worked on her third novel, The Short History of a Prince, for three years before she felt she could show it to Futter. “She rewrote the book many times. We faxed back and forth a lot. It's a very personal book for her; I knew she wanted to get it right.”
Jane feels that the new book, which Random House just published, is something of a departure. It is, finally, written in the third person. Instead of a woman with problems, the protagonist is a gay man named Walter McCloud. And the setting has moved away from farm country. “Walter does end up being a high school English teacher in a small town,” Jane says, “but he's a very urban person.” She describes him somewhat disparagingly as a “dilettante … a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer and has no talent.” In the book Walter only gets to dance the Prince in The Nutcracker because “there were no older boys in Miss Amy's school.”
The Short History of a Prince leaps effortlessly back and forth between 1972-73, Walter's sophomore year in high school, and 1995-96, his first year as an English teacher. Fifteen-year-old Walter discovers his sexuality at the same time that his brother, a high school senior, is dying of Hodgkin's disease. As an adult nearing 40, he wrestles with questions of family continuity while he tries to come to terms with life as a gay man in a small, conservative, Midwestern town. Hamilton tells us just enough of the in-between years to let us know that Walter frittered away his twenties and most of his thirties in New York, selling doll house furniture and searching for love among other aficionados of the opera and ballet.
Despite Jane's sense that the new book differs from her earlier work, in many ways The Short History of a Prince offers readers more of the same fine writing they have come to expect from her. As in The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, Hamilton's close attention to domestic detail and to the nuances of language shine through. Her wry humor does, too. When Walter's mother camps out at the hospital, for example, the short description of her absence deftly conveys an abandoned child's sense of loss and dangerous opportunity, tough-guy belligerence and despair. Walter and his best friend come home from school day after day to find the house empty of all life but his dying brother's dog, Duke. The boys “fixed themselves bowls of Kix. They added miniature marshmallows … along with raisins, peanuts, bananas and chocolate sauce—anything they could find. … Walter made popcorn, and once they poured melted unsweetened chocolate over the kernels. The bitterness surprised them, and so they added sugar and, for balance, a dash of salt. Duke ate the mess from the trash later that night and early the next morning he puked outside Walter's bedroom door. It was nothing less than a personal vendetta, Walter knew. The dog, although stupid in most ways, had a talent for vengeance.”
By the end of the book, it's clear that Walter—warts and all—truly is a prince, and that Jane feels as much empathy for him as she does for her first two protagonists, Ruth Dahl and Alice Goodwin. In her acceptance of Walter—who, like Ruth and Alice, fits awkwardly into society—Jane offers her readers another lesson about humanity written with the author's characteristically light and deft hand.
What makes Prince most different from Ruth and Map, Jane thinks, is its tone. “It's the happiest thing I've written,” she says. Perhaps the book reflects Jane's growing satisfaction with her own life. Like most women in two-career families, she is stressed by demands on her time. She regrets that she has not been the mother she imagined she'd be, “this great earth mother type who sewed dolly clothes and made Play-Doh from scratch.” But Hannah and Ben—now 10 and 13—are well past the stage where they must be watched every minute they're not asleep. Jane has full days to write while they are in school. And her books have done well financially. Oprah's book club invitation did not—as many suspect—make Jane a millionaire; she must split royalties from Doubleday's paperback sales of The Book of Ruth with Ticknor & Fields, the hardcover publisher. But after being supported by her husband, after many years of money worries, Jane now has enough savings to carry her family through several years.
As we talk, the sun finally pierces the fog. Shafts of light stream into the big farm kitchen. Bob comes through the back door, carrying a sheaf of invoices. He tells us how beautiful the orchard was in the morning, while he was pruning the apple trees. He saw skeins of geese heading north; heard the cries of sandhill cranes. He disappears into his office to do orchard paperwork. I ask Jane if she misses working with the apples.
“I miss being involved in something in a physical way, something that's not exercise for the sake of exercise,” she says. I recall her years of ballet. But she adds, “I'm really happy in my current job. What better thing than to spend your day staring out the window and looking up words in the dictionary? It feels like a great luxury.”
Rosellen Brown (review date June 1998)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719
SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen. “Something Completely Different.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 9 (June 1998): 6-7.
[In the following review, Brown focuses on the dual passions of Walter, the protagonist in The Short History of a Prince, noting his key differences from Hamilton's previous protagonists.]
Although readers may turn to us for guidance, book reviewers infrequently have a chance to think much, or at least long, about the work at hand. Film, drama and music critics have far shorter deadlines, but still we rarely have the leisure to let a book settle in our minds, let alone sink below consciousness level. That's a pity, because fiction works differently over time than it does when we must snap to and deliver an instant response.
All of which is an appropriately slow introduction to Jane Hamilton's leisurely Short History of a Prince. This is an odd book which, perhaps because it seemed exasperatingly random, took me some time to appreciate but which has lingered in my memory in much the way an encounter with a real person persists when he or she has eluded easy categorizing. This novel lives as a voice (slightly loopy), as detail (infinitely trivial), as moment (mostly small, with a few huge and moving show-stoppers narrated in the same offhand and off-center tone). Original and quirky. The Short History of a Prince is the very opposite of “high concept.”
Jane Hamilton is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, The Book of Ruth (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award) and the bestselling A Map of the World, quite dissimilar stories set in small mid-western towns. When Oprah anointed Ruth a useful heroine in her laudable pantheon of Discoveries for the Reader in Need of a Push Into New Waters, Hamilton gained a large audience. While Ruth is a humble and sympathetic narrator and Alice of A Map of the World an astringently intelligent and sophisticated one, readers may have a bit more trouble falling into line behind Walter McCloud, who's the woefully inadequate, if game, prince of Hamilton's new book. But (with an exemption for homophobes), given time Walter will likely charm them as he charmed me.
We see Walter, the younger of two sons in a fairly ordinary suburban Chicago family, in alternating sections as a teenager in 1972 and almost 25 years later as the adult he has become, a high school English teacher slightly more eccentric than his small Wisconsin town is accustomed to. In high school Walter desperately wants to be a ballet dancer—his fierce, independent and probably lesbian aunt Sue Rawson introduced him to the Nutcracker early and he took off from there—but, not to put too fine a point on it, he just doesn't have the stuff. His best friends, Susan and Mitch, have it (as well as, for a while, each other), but what Walter has instead is the inflamed and self-absorbed consciousness of beauty, wit and longing that will make his head far more interesting to live inside than either of theirs, though Susan is complex and challenging early and late.
Walter, who's not in love with Susan but with Mitch, is already, at sixteen, both sabotaged and saved by his sense of humor and gay sensibility. Dancing, in the first movement of Serenade, he
threw himself into the wind of the large fan on the dining-room table and struck a pose. He buffeted back and forth, in and out of the steady push of air. If only he had on one of the blue chiffon costumes that Balanchine's dancers wore, a gown that would flutter and billow after him. He was going full tilt—no one could say that he did not have enough feeling for the entire ensemble of twenty-eight girls.
Inspired, he runs upstairs and returns in a brocaded velvet coat, “a genuine piece from Liberace's Mr. Showmanship Collection, an item he had found on a day God blessed him for fifteen dollars at a yard sale. … As he came back into the room it dawned on him that Liberace, Tchaikovsky and Balanchine were really after the same aesthetic.” Hamilton lampoons Walter's passion even as she honors it:
He was thinking, as he moved, that there was surely a place between the hootchy-kootchy, the watusi, well beyond the hokey pokey, but running neck and neck with the gavotte, the galliard, the courante, and with all due respect to the cha-cha, the fandango, the monkey and the mambo—a place where those forms would meld into something very like what he thought he was doing with his hips at the moment.
Walter suffers spectacularly well-described shame when he finally grows old enough to hope to dance in his Chicago ballet school's Nutcracker alongside Susan and Mitch, only to be exiled to a humiliating farm team production in Rockford, where, among other embarrassments, his partner is heavy enough to be nearly unliftable: so much for Walter's short history as a prince.
Later, in one of the novel's most devastating scenes, his ballet teacher, disgusted to find him gotten up as a swan—“He rose on his pointes and with the tentativeness of a first flight he wobbled and fluttered his arms”—punishes him brutally by sending him out into the street in his beautiful disguise, bloody feet crammed into a woman's toe shoes, not so much a cross-dresser but a boy in love with glorious illusion. Walter is foolish and brave, dignified and absurd, and (given enough time and distance) he knows and does not even regret it.
The other passion at the center of The Short History, which forces Walter to confront his narcissistic self-absorption, is the illness and death by cancer of his older brother, the sweet and courageous Daniel. Needless to say, everything shifts in his family; when he appears to go about his business as if nothing of much moment were happening, Susan, who loves Dan, demonstrates to Walter how blinkered his vision has become. But Hamilton plays these scenes from a peculiar perspective: she concentrates on many non-tragic scenes, like Walter's and Mitch's vengeance on an irritating neighbor, on Walter's obsession with ballet and on his love for his friend—“the smell of him, the sharp body odor … Mitch. One name. That single word”—who indulges him with what turns out to be painful casualness, the kind of adolescent boy-boy sex that often passes and leaves little trace. Groping each other, they never speak or see or, afterwards, acknowledge what they have done. Mitch, when last seen in the nineties, is married and living in California.
The obliqueness with which so much of this is played out is one of the engaging qualities of this quirky book that took me some time to get used to. Neither death nor sex stands precisely at its center, at least not definitively. With the notable exception of the painful Swan Lake scene (in which, he later thinks, “he had been punished … for his shameful relations with Mitch, his hateful feelings toward Susan, his indifference to his brother … forty lashes for every one of his lapses, his hostilities, his perversity”), Walter as a teenager hardly seems to suffer the guilt, questioning, doubt and self-disgust we have come to associate with gay characters discovering their sexuality. When we meet him he has already acknowledged and seemingly accepted who he is; there is no angst-ridden Coming Out drama.
That's refreshing, but it may also be unrealistic. The adult Walter pays one small retrospective obeisance to what he suffered as a young man, but we don't see it much as it's happening: “My major secret, liking boys, was not only shameful, but I didn't know how I was going to carry it forward into adulthood. I sometimes figured I'd live with my mother, both of us like old ladies eating rump roast on Sunday afternoons, buttoning up and taking a walk in the park.”
And Walter, as an adult, does turn out to be lonely, insufficiently loved, confused by his future, but this, too, is given us only as a kind of retrospective hearsay. Returned to Wisconsin from working in New York at a dollhouse shop, he speaks ruefully of the short season in which he flourished: “I spent my twenties indulging myself, believing it was good and right to be happy, sexy … to give in to everything beautiful and sunny, to have rich friends, to make sure I got an invitation to the Hamptons on the weekends. I was Lily Bart, minus the face, the figure and the hats.” (Also, fortunately, minus the suicide.) What saves him, finally, from disillusionment and disarray, is that he comes to respect his place as a literate, energetic, slightly peculiar teacher and as the recipient of his aunt's and his parents' faith and affection when they plot to leave the family's Wisconsin house on the lake to him: the legacy and history of his particular people. It is an intimate and redemptive gift.
The success of any book depends on whether we are looking in the right place for the principle that moves it. Jane Hamilton's intention seems to be to demonstrate the many kinds of love and responsibility we bear each other in addition to the complex duties and pleasures of friendship: the aesthetic, the familial, the erotic. Sue Miller's For Love did this, a few seasons back, love (chiefly heterosexual) again experienced through its tiniest, most intricate and petty gestures, as if to say the larger the ambition the more modest the execution.
What's most admirable about this novel, aside from how funny it is just under the surface of its serious events, is that Hamilton has dared to imagine a character so wholly different from those in her previous books (except that all of them turn out, ultimately, to be earnest and dignified good citizens in their ways) and that she has framed her story off center and surrounded it with good talk and good stories detailed the way a novelist shows her love, with patience and precision. She has made it a fructifying take on real life lived by real people, though this one's a little too scattered in its effects to show up on Oprah. Looking back on it from this distance I'm not sure why I didn't trust it in the first place. But second place will do.
Jane E. Gordon (review date winter 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333
SOURCE: Gordon, Jane E. Review of The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 115.
[In the following review, Gordon examines the disparity between the protagonist's extraordinary dreams and his ordinary life in The Short History of a Prince.]
This story [The Short History of a Prince] is about the transformative power of ordinariness, coming to terms with death, and acceptance of real life. One might say it is about the death of fantasy, and the acceptance of ordinary reality. Told in a style that juxtaposes the present and past of Walter McCloud, a Midwestern English teacher in the present, gay adolescent in the past, it is a story of a person eventually coming to terms with the loss of his brother to cancer, the loss of his own dreams of being a ballet star, the acceptance of his homosexuality (not very well worked out), and the realization that he is going to settle for an ordinary life.
Walter is a younger brother to Daniel, an athlete, liked by many, and his parents' favorite. Walter, who has been tagging along as second in line, has been cultivating an identity as a ballet dancer, attending a ballet school with his friends Susan and Mitch. Mitch and Susan are a couple, and Walter has an unrequited crush on Mitch. Susan and Mitch are much better dancers, with promise of careers, than Walter, who desires the aura of fame and grandeur. When Daniel's cancer is discovered, the household begins to revolve around him. Walter is left on his own, to whirl in an almost airless cocoon of denial and desire. He begins an affair with Mitch, and Susan begins an affair with Daniel. In a sense, Daniel's eventual death sets the three teenagers free from the web they have created around themselves. However, the Walter of the present must still step into life and claim his reality. The short history of a prince ends with the long beginning of an ordinary life.
Amy Levin (essay date spring 1999)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10376
SOURCE: Levin, Amy. “Familiar Terrain: Domestic Ideology and Farm Policy in Three Women's Novels about the 1980s.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 1 (spring 1999): 21-43.
[In the following essay, Levin traces the influence of 1980s myths about family life on the heroines of A Map of the World, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, explicating each novel's perspective on “family” in terms of a specifically Midwestern American identity and the interaction between global farming policies and political ideology.]
During the 1980s, Republican administrations glorified nostalgic visions of family life. These visions coexisted with social and fiscal policies that had negative ramifications for small farms, families, and women. This paper analyzes three contemporary novels—Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee (1989), A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991), and A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton (1994)—in which the heroines' lives on their farms are influenced by contemporary myths. Like some of their predecessors, today's novelists express nostalgia for a harmonious homestead; however, they reveal the flawed nature of such visions and question their public acceptance. Ultimately, the heroines leave their farms for anonymous lives in town, indicating some resignation to the power of dominant ideologies. At the same time, the three novels offer distinct perspectives on region and narrative, as well as more specifically on what it means to be a Midwesterner. These perspectives complicate the connections among farming, families, and ideology, throwing into relief global events such as the surge in undocumented immigrants, as well as questions of identity.
During the 1980s, the American press documented hardships experienced by rural families as a result of shifts in public policy and attitudes. More recently, women novelists have provided another record of these events, focusing on the interrelated effects of government regulations and domestic ideology on the lives of farm women. Specifically, three novels—Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991), Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World (1994), and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine (1989)—use first person narratives to comment ironically on the farm woman as popular icon. Yet, even as the authors offer a critique of social and political values, their heroines remain enmeshed in powerful ideologies regulating gender, sexuality, and the family. The novels reflect on the nature of literary regionalism as well, illustrating how it may give voice to some of those neglected by the dominant discourse, while it may silence still others.
In The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860, Annette Kolodny has traced the existence of connections between social ideology and domestic fiction back to novels written prior to the Civil War. She indicates the ways in which some nineteenth-century women's novels about the West perpetuated nostalgic visions of the American home, and she outlines how several authors reinforced contemporary ideals of frontier farms and ranches. Such portraits of farm life, accompanied by pastoral imagery, were opposed to views of corrupt, dirty towns and cities. Kolodny links this theme in fiction to nineteenth-century conceptions of women's roles, indicating how novels at once supported and subverted popular values. Carol Fairbanks (1986) expands on Kolodny's theory, writing about later authors. Fairbanks suggests that these women, like some of those described by Kolodny, “wanted to undermine or, at a minimum, modify the public's image of the lives of women on the frontier” (1986, 25). Works about farming in the Midwest during the turbulent 1980s suggest that these points apply to contemporary literature as well.
In their edited collection of articles, Sherrie Inness and Diana Royer go beyond Kolodny and Fairbanks, arguing that regionalism “offers a forum for social protest” (1987, 1). Yet even protest is complicated because of women's liminal status as community insiders and outsiders: “As regional writers present their communities, real and imagined, they engage in multiple discourses born out of those communities, discourses that embody cultural conflict and reflect social tension even as they seek to resolve those very issues” (3). They emphasize that protest arises out of women's need to construct their own identities. Thus, by definition, such regionalist works address issues of difference and in particular of “how foreignness is constituted” (10), literally and figuratively. By implication, they are “essential to understanding how the United States constitutes itself” (1). The importance of this concept is evident when one considers the historical context of the novels to be discussed.
During the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations, spurred on by the Moral Majority and other conservative coalitions, glorified visions of family life, even though—or perhaps because—many Americans were convinced that the family as they knew it was rapidly disintegrating. Magazines such as Newsweek devoted special issues to the plight of the family, including articles such as one wondering, “What Happened to the Family,” which lamented, “marriage is a fragile institution,” and the “irony here is that the traditional family is something of an anomaly” (Footlick 1990, 16).
At the same time, farms were portrayed as a refuge from the forces pulling families apart, as well as from isolating and corrupting aspects of urban survival. For many, the Midwest remained a metonym for rural living, and farms took on metaphorical associations with a prelapsarian America, where families enjoyed prosperity, togetherness, and a certain moral certitude. In this almost mythical realm, women kept impeccable houses and baked bread, and people of color were virtually invisible.
In the first half of the decade, country was, quite literally, the fashion. In 1979, Mademoiselle featured an article entitled “Barn Makeover,” offering readers advice on purchasing items necessary to replicate the effect (198). In 1985, Vogue chronicled socialite Robin Duke's conversion of a barn on Long Island into a “haven for simple pleasures after decades of globe-trotting” and a “dream house, a pleasingly rustic, French-accented country retreat” (Talley 1985, 258-260). Never mind that the old horse stall separating the dining and living areas was probably as close as the socialite and her guests would get to farming, or that the homes on most Midwestern farms lacked imported French antiques. What such texts recorded was an enduring fantasy of mythic proportions.1
Idealized visions coexisted with increasingly conservative social and fiscal policies that had negative ramifications for small farms, families, and women. The same week that Time magazine reviewed the film Witness, noting the “tone of civilized irreconcilability” between the heroine's rural, Amish life and the hero's spiritually starved urban existence as a policeman (Schickel 1985, 91), its cover stories recorded the crisis facing America's farms.2 Popular magazines throughout the year ran articles about the farm bill, the administration's attitudes toward price supports and credit, and their negative effects on family operations.
Specialized magazines, such as Successful Farming, recorded similar circumstances as the decade progressed. The April and May 1979 issues of Successful Farming hinted at trouble with articles entitled “Loan Request Denied” (Kellum 1979, 28) and “He Sold His Cow Herd in the Face of Rising Prices” (Kruse and Baxter 1979, 13). Yet, such troubles seemed scattered and remediable; the farmer who had to relinquish his cow, for instance, turned to raising corn. An article by Carol Tevis, who reported on women and families, was optimistically entitled “Mom Is the Key,” and noted the importance of women to successful farm transfers and keeping the family together (Tevis 1979, 34-35).
Thus, in the first part of the decade, farming and general interest magazines revealed that for many the vitality of the Midwestern farm belt was associated with and perceived as a reflection of the condition of the American family. Any threat to the farm represented a potential assault on the family, as well as on the moral values in which the family was grounded. The government crackdown on farm credit and price supports met bitter anger, having provoked in farmers a sense that their way of life was under attack, with “partisans … waging the battle with nearly religious intensity” (Church 1985, 25).
Ironically, these perceptions of a direct relationship between the fate of the family and of the farm, between moral and economic stability, may have facilitated the administration's pursuit of its agricultural policy. In the middle of the decade, public personages such as David Stockman and Agriculture Secretary John Block presented farmers as irresponsible financial managers who failed to provide for their families and thus undercut the stability of the nation. Concomitantly, what had been portrayed as valuable, fertile “real estate” (to use a category proposed by Carol Fairbanks) was increasingly referred to as a kind of “waste land,”3 over cultivated or left fallow in crop rotation plans designed to yield maximum federal subsidies (1986, 68). The 1985 issue of Time on farming prominently featured Stockman's reproach: “For the life of me, I cannot figure out why taxpayers of this country have the responsibility to go in and refinance bad debt that was willingly incurred by consenting adults who went out and bought farmland when the price was going up” (Church 1985, 24). Through such rhetoric, politicians were able to weaken popular nostalgia surrounding agricultural life. This strategy made policies hostile to farming interests more palatable to taxpayers in towns and cities, who felt they had something to gain—morally and financially—with the elimination of easy credit and price supports for their neighbors. Farmers themselves blamed the “greed” of their colleagues (Tevis 1992, 16), as well as the government and bankers, but not their own practices.
By the end of the decade, Successful Farming testified to the devastating effects of the 1980s on farms and their families. In “Diminished Expectations,” Carol Tevis (1992) compared 1974 and 1991 surveys of thousands of families. The results were discouraging. Federal policies were frequently blamed for the desperate plight of farms; the author reported that “A strong sense of disillusionment prevails regarding government” (15). More specifically, said a woman from Kentucky, “I believe the government wants the family farm out” (10). Respondents also linked government policies to the collapse of the family: “Many farm men and women point to the increase in off-farm employment [necessitated by the economy] as a factor behind the erosion of social relationships, and the decline in neighboring in their communities” (15). Not only did the survey indicate that “[t]he feeling that family life is threatened is more pronounced,” (1992, 14) but it cited a farmer who took a stab at earlier rosy pictures of rural life: “I hate the way farm magazines glorify the farm with all the sentimental slop” (16). In light of such disgruntlement, it is not surprising that in the 1991 survey, only 63 percent of the respondents thought the family farm would survive (9).
Similarly, sociological and anthropological studies of women in rural America have noted increasing anxiety and tension, which they locate historically and contemporaneously. Their methodologies include large samples, as well as interviews and case studies, and some of them take an explicitly feminist perspective. For instance, Deborah Fink traces the history of the myth that “farm people were happier, healthier, and more virtuous than city people” back to Jeffersonian idealism (1992, 2), entrenching perceptions of rural America in the political ideology of the new Republic. Fink further argues that visions of the “frontier West as a place where women could shake free” (4) are feminist reconstructions of the past, whereas many farm women have lived and continue to live in virtual isolation. She indicates that “the organization of labor within the nuclear family undermined its liberating potential” (10) and permitted the elision of women from study, as well as the neglect of farm women's troubles (189-196). Her work chronicles “subtle acts of sabotage” (xv), or women's modes of resistance, in contrast to the portraits of united families in popular farm publications.
In Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change, Fink (1986) takes a feminist anthropological perspective in focusing on women since World War II. In this work, Fink emphasizes the importance of economics in farm country, in particular in such changes as increased mechanization and women's difficulties in finding adequately paying off-farm jobs that might reduce their dependence on men (161-197). She also identifies land transfers (203) and a lack of social services to help with domestic violence, child care, and other needs (208) as difficulties for farm women. And, unlike the reporters in popular farm publications, she contends that the patriarchy itself is a major source of tension and unhappiness in farm life (209). To the extent that other social and political structures support the patriarchy, she finds them complicit as well.4 Thus, while farmers in the public press blamed many of their problems on external forces, and the government accused farmers of fiscal irresponsibility, scholarly researchers noted internal family tensions as well.
These connections between the health of the family and of the farm, between political policy and domestic ideology, which researchers such as Kolodny documented in nineteenth-century novels, are central in Jasmine, A Thousand Acres, and A Map of the World. Smiley's novel is set in 1979, and Hamilton's at the end of the 1980s or beginning of the 1990s. Mukherjee's focuses primarily the middle of the 1980s. The novels thus span the decade and offer a retrospective on its events. At the same time, the three texts provide distinct perspectives on the region and what it means to be a Midwesterner: the heroine of Smiley's work is born and bred in Iowa, the family in Hamilton's book has chosen to farm in Wisconsin, and Mukherjee's protagonist arrives in Iowa after a long odyssey that began in Punjab. These different temporal and spatial removes complicate the connections among farming, families, and ideology, throwing into relief global events, such as the return of Vietnam war veterans or the surge in undocumented aliens, as well as questions of national and regional identity.
The effects of these various removes are particularly significant, because they exemplify theories developed by contemporary scholars on regionalism in literature. First, these novelists contest the idea of a single, monologic definition of a region, instead “[v]iewing geography as a two- or three-tiered field, as a combination or dialectic of what there is and what people believe or imagine there is” (Loriggio 1994, 6). Every one of these texts supports Marjorie Pryse's assertion that the region that is experienced by marginalized individuals, including women, minorities, and ideological “outsiders,” is very different from the Midwest experienced by members of the dominant population (1994, 48). This difference generates conflict and plot (Loriggio 1994, 12-13).
Second, these novels illustrate a distinction made by Marjorie Pryse between regionalist literature, written or narrated by insiders, and regional literature, which is written or narrated by outsiders and captures “local color” (1994, 48). The literature of insiders tends to elicit “empathy” (Fetterley and Pryse, 1992, xv) and to express an “implicit pedagogy” (Pryse 1994, 48), while outsiders maintain an ironic remove. While all three novels include characters whose perspectives exemplify this duality, Mukherjee's text ultimately challenges and collapses the distinction.
Third, the novels enact various, contested views of region by presenting conflict not only among differing factions in the local population, but also between inhabitants and government outsiders, or between long-term residents and newcomers. Thus, just as the article from Vogue (Talley 1985) cited above offers a view of farming that differs from the representations in Successful Farming, these novels contain myriad perspectives on farms and their owners. At their best, these novels are about the (re)possession of space, and of memories or myths of that space, which inhabit it and affect individual constructions of it.
Specifically, in all three novels, the heroines' lives on their farms are influenced by myths of “an idyllic rural life” (Hardigg 1994, 82). Moreover, the ultimate collapse (or near collapse) of their families and modes of living is directly related to economic policy, government farming regulations, and social ideologies that offer oppositional views of their efforts. Because citizens of neighboring towns represent or carry out government threats, the distinctions between farm and town life become critical.
Within the novels, these issues are embedded in contemporary discourse pertaining to sexuality and sex crimes. Just as the fate of the family farm is directly related to who holds political and financial control, so is the fate of the protagonist's body. The heroine of Smiley's book finds herself deeply affected by her experiences as an incest victim; Hamilton's protagonist is accused of molesting children; Mukherjee's Jasmine is raped (and her husband is crippled by an angry farmer). Ultimately, the novels might be considered maps of a world, charts not only of the limited acreage the heroines possess and are possessed by, but also topographical surveys of an important segment of American society and reflections on the forces that shape and dominate regions. As Mukherjee's heroine notes repeatedly, the Midwest has much in common with Punjab, a reference to the presence of violence and factionalism, as well as to agrarian life.
In A Thousand Acres, Smiley, too, signals that she is chronicling more than the story of a single family. In her first chapter, she locates the heroine's farm geographically: “No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe” (1991, 3). This sense of significance, even portentousness, is underscored by the obvious resemblances between Smiley's plot and King Lear.
Nevertheless, initially the Cook farm appears to be a placid, well-managed thousand acre spread, tended by Larry Cook and his sons-in-law Ty and Pete. Ginny, the narrator, fulfills traditional models of wifely and daughterly excellence in her attention to the quotidian. Like the authors in the domestic fictions described by Kolodny, Ginny intersperses information about farming with accounts of important events, to educate the uninitiated:
On a farm, no matter how careful you are about taking off boots and overalls, the dirt just drifts through anyway. Dirt is the least of it. There's oil and blood and muck, too. I knew women with linoleum in every room, and proud of the way it looked “just like parquet”. … But mostly, farm women are proud of the fact that they can keep the house looking as though the farm stays outside.
Such apparent digressions add to the impression that the novel's intent goes beyond telling a family story; moreover, this particular description indicates that little has changed since the nineteenth century. The house and kitchen garden remain the wife's domain, from which she banishes the “dirt” of the “outside.” The farmhouse, with floors “like parquet,” is a replica of the neat town houses of Easterners, rather than a pivotal space between domestic and natural realms.
This equivalence extends to the ground itself; Smiley “sees an inescapable link between the exploitation of the land and that of woman” (Duffy 1991, 92). Smiley herself has commented in interviews that “[w]omen, just like nature or the land, have been seen as something to be used” (quoted in Duffy 1991, 92), arguing that “men equate women with nature and that nature is evil, something to be controlled” (quoted in Walter 1992, 63). In fact, exploitation is a central theme of this novel that appears to hark back to a more innocent and generous mode of life. Smiley attacks the pernicious and insidious ways society has long condoned the exploitation of women and nature.
The propriety of the farm home (and family) is little more than an illusion for the judging chorus of townsfolk (Bakerman 1992, 128)—and, as often as not, the evil is perpetrated by men. Prim white curtains screen out Pete's abuse of Ginny's sister Rose. Rich crops are fed by polluted ground water, which may be responsible for Ginny's miscarriages, as well as for her sister's cancer. Ginny's absorption in small chores anesthetizes her, while her preoccupation with caring for her father masks years of control and sexual abuse on his part. Smiley thus builds a delicate set of images that allude to the moral and physical status of the family.
The central events in Smiley's plot are also directly related to political occurrences, and particularly to domestic policy. The return of Jess Clark, the prodigal son who eventually has affairs with both Ginny and Rose, records the community's increasing tolerance for Vietnam War draft evaders. Jess is accepted because he has returned to the family, for in the world of A Thousand Acres, keeping the family together, no matter how cruel it may be, is a primary value. Smiley's complex portrait of Clark implicitly criticizes this social value. Initially, Jess appears a sexy rebel-hero, returning to regenerate the community with his organic farming. Yet Jess's decision to seduce Ginny at the old dump suggests he is just another male who uses women for his pleasure. The dump is a version of Eden after the fall; its snakes may be harmless, but poisons reside in the indigenous plants.5 When Jess turns from Ginny to her sister Rose, Ginny's romantic fantasies are revealed to be as false as her idealized pictures of the farm.
Smiley debunks another farming myth as well: the dream of the growing family farm, shored up with loans and modern technology until it becomes an enormous, gleaming, corporate enterprise, a gem of real estate. When Larry Cook decides to relinquish the reins of the farm to his two eldest daughters (Caroline, the youngest, refuses to participate), their husbands concoct plans to engage in a vast hog farming enterprise, a significant portion of which revolves around the disposal of waste as manure. The failure of these plans occupies a major portion of the plot.
The new hog buildings are financed with loans from Marv Carson, the local banker. Marv Carson is a health fanatic, constantly worrying about ridding his body of “toxins” (29). This preoccupation with waste among the men is emblematic of their stance toward nature and anticipates (or echoes, given that the novel was published in 1991) political rhetoric of the 1980s. In a 1985 U.S. News & World Report, Secretary of Agriculture John Block is quoted saying, “We in agriculture built our own trap … expanded too much and too fast” (63). The obsession with profligacy, refuse, and its disposal reflects the falsity of the farm enterprise, for the men are constantly trying to make waste less apparent.
More importantly perhaps, as Jess Clark's return indicates, the enterprise is dependent on the family's togetherness as much as it is on credit. When cracks begin to appear in the fabric of the family, and Caroline and Larry sue for the return of the farm, Marv Carson, together with the lawyer, Ken LaSalle, stop work on construction (263). As the court date approaches, Ginny and Rose are urged to pay attention to the impressions they create because,
[m]ost issues on a farm return to the issue of keeping up appearances. Farmers extrapolate quickly from the farm to the farmer. … What his farm looks like boils down to questions of character. … A good farmer (a savvy manager, someone with talent for animals and machines, a man willing to work all the time who's raised his children to work the same way) will have a good farm. A poor-looking farm diagrams the farmer's personal failures.
One's ability at farming translates into moral “goodness.” Character, credit, and judgment are inextricably connected to appearances. What Ginny learns is that just as the farm's expansion is built on credit rather than assets, and its fertility is built on a sheet of poisoned water, so her family's apparent closeness rests on false versions of the past. When the secrets are aired, the family cannot hold together any more than the farm can succeed when the tenuousness of the connections among its managers are exposed.
Yet the family does not fail in a vacuum; it fails because it is exposed to the neighboring community, which rushes to judgment. Ginny is as concerned about the responses of local townsfolk as she is about the verdict of the jury. Thus, the town becomes an extension of the “outside,” the world of government and banking that dooms the family itself, as well as its farm. Conversely, governmental and financial institutions are not presented as dark, anonymous forces; they have representatives in the community, which is set in contradistinction to the farm.
At the end of the novel, Ginny leaves the farm for an anonymous waitressing job near an interstate outside Minneapolis-St. Paul. Everything is sold when Rose dies. The main purchaser is the Heartland Corporation (368), whose name suggests the Midwest has become so dissociated from feeling that even matters of the heart are incorporated. Ginny's husband moves to Texas, and she fashions a family for herself by raising Rose's daughters.
Instead of inheriting the land and livestock, Ginny's legacy is “regret” and “solitude.” She must pay for the sins and silences of the past, even as she acknowledges that she will always carry with her “molecules of topsoil and atrazine and paraquat and anhydrous ammonia” (368-369), the poisons of her previous existence. These linger in the memory of her father, “the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others” (371).
The reference to the “shard” in the novel's closing line is as ambiguous as the conclusion itself. This chip of darkness, a fragment of the evil at the heart of her family, is a memento she will carry forever. It is not immediately clear, however, why Ginny must “safeguard” it. The chip is important because it is hard and tangible. It is the past rendered solid. The obsidian prevents Ginny from idealizing the family and its past once again. Nevertheless, Ginny chooses not to tell all the truths to her surviving sister, Caroline. To the end, then, she colludes in some ways with the community, which would have her maintain a false view of her father's actions.
In a revision of the cultural myth that inscribes the land as female, Smiley closes her novel with the image of a community of women creating a new life in an urban environment. Yet the family at the end of the novel lacks “faith.” It is isolated and poor; what truth there is has diminished them. The characters are detached from nature and the earth that has sustained them. One of Ginny's nieces is interested in “vertical food conglomerates” (369), while Ginny serves food to strangers regardless of whether it is in season. Wastes disappear to an invisible sewage plant. Ginny's life seems oddly impersonal. If she has purged much of the pain of farm life, she has done so at the cost of its individual quality. In retrospect then, the earliest parts of the novel take on an elegiac tone, not for the family as it really was, but as it appeared. Readers find themselves longing for a world where Ginny would whip up a batch of muffins or hang the laundry to dry in the sun. And one could argue that this tone ultimately reinforces a certain ideal of family life.
In sum, Smiley offers no satisfying resolution. The cleanness in Ginny's life is purchased at the cost of connection and an accompanying loss of detail. What readers must lose in the end are their own illusions and nostalgia. If the resulting world is bleaker, it is also a realm where women can exist independently, and that is its victory. The information about land costs, the historical descriptions of the farmhouse, the loving pictures of Ginny cooking, all of these overlay pain and abuse. Smiley's book resembles the novels Kolodny analyzes because it, too, functions in some ways as a manual, offering useful facts. But it is not the manual it appears to be. The advice we are supposed to listen to was embedded in the novel from the earliest pages, as in, “perhaps there is a distance that is the optimum distance for seeing one's father” (20).
In reading Smiley's novel, it is not initially apparent that the details about farming are linked to the advice about families, that Smiley's descriptions of farm conditions, such as the pollution of groundwater, bear metaphorical as well as literal significance. Smiley's concern for women and the environment seems to be at odds with many Reagan-Bush era government policies. Yet, while she attacks myths of families and farms, she echoes criticism of farming as wasteful and exploitative, a way of life built on empty credit and dropping values. Her critique is similar to the government's, it just comes from a different direction. Thus, it could be argued that, like several of the texts cited by Kolodny, Smiley's novel ultimately supports some of the very ideas it appears to subvert. At the same time, the text poses a dilemma for those who would take a bio-regionalist perspective, highlighting its nostalgia for “the lost potential of American places” (Kowalewski 1994, 38). Instead of offering hope for renewal in the land, Smiley's characters seek solace near the city.6
Jane Hamilton, too, focuses on issues of ideology, power, and memory in her construction of a region.7 Her second novel, A Map of the World (1994), exposes the harmful effects of governmental involvement in social and farm policy, yet it diverges from A Thousand Acres in several significant ways. First, A Map of the World is set about ten years later. Sex crimes have come into public discourse instead of remaining hidden. The community is more suburban than agrarian; one of the characters is creating a “Dairy Shrine,” to “commemorate” a passing way of life (Hamilton 1994, 21). Second, the heroine and her husband have chosen to farm. They resemble the Ericsons, a family whose farm fails early in Smiley's novel. Third, Alice has never acquired household management skills. It is all she can do to contain the household chaos, be patient with her daughters, and seem caring in her part-time job as a nurse.
Despite these dissimilarities, Hamilton's work resonates with many of the themes found in Smiley's fiction. Initially, the farm of Alice and Howard Goodwin (an ironic choice of surname), is described as “a self made paradise,” studded with a pond and an orchard. The rich, almost sensual, details build a careful picture of the locale, where Alice does her “best to be a good farm wife” (Hamilton 1994, 13), and her husband throws himself into local history. As in A Thousand Acres and the works studied by Kolodny, some of the details instruct, such as when Alice notes that she “made butter in the food processor” (12) or when Howard states, “It is a rule of nature that taking a day off on a farm sets a person back at least a week” (157). Other details document information for historical reasons as when Alice explains the workings of their hay baler (13).
These facts must be recorded because a “dream of a Midwest Arcadia is destroyed” (Kent 1994, 26) by the novel's central events. Yet, from the beginning, the “dream” is as deceptive as the Cook family enterprise in A Thousand Acres. The presence of an old orchard suggests that this Eden contains evil as well as good, that it exists after the creation of labor: “the tedium of work and love—all of it was my savior,” says Alice (Hamilton 1994, 5). Even as they face the “usual problems that came with farming in what was becoming suburbia” (12), Alice notes that the Goodwins are “labeled from the first as that hippie couple” (13), existing “[o]utside the bounds of the collective imagination” (4).
The Goodwins' neighbors, “very few [of whom] seemed to make the connection between the sustaining white liquid they poured on their breakfast cereal and Howard's clattering, stinking enterprise across the way” (12), cannot face what they have left. They are so distant from nature that their streets bear the names of other states and connect through fake covered bridges (15). Instead of owning livestock, they possess refrigerators “with juice spigots hanging down like goat tits” (17). Given the way the townspeople have abandoned farming, they offer a vision of what might have occurred to the inhabitants of Zebulon County in Smiley's novel within ten years of the book's events.
Political and economic policy are visible in the townsfolk's decision to leave farming, as well as in the transformation of the landscape into neatly separated subdivisions. Moreover, the Goodwins are heavily in debt, and the young couple must constantly borrow from Howard's mother. Families have been disrupted as well. Alice lost her mother while she was young, as did Ginny in A Thousand Acres, and the absence of mother seems correlated to a growing alienation from “Mother Nature.” Significantly, Alice's friend Teresa, who is in many ways the moral center of the novel, works as a therapist, helping to keep or bring other families together.
The Goodwins' fall is precipitated by two crises: first, one of Teresa's daughters drowns while Alice is supposed to be watching her, and second, Alice is accused of molesting boys at the elementary school where she works as a nurse. Alice's guilt over the drowning incapacitates her. While public opinion supported Larry Cook against allegations that he committed sexual abuse, it is not so kind to Alice Goodwin. Indeed, the accusations confirm her scapegoating and throw the family into emotional and financial crisis. As in the household in A Thousand Acres, family roles have been rigidly distinguished. Howard does not know how to manage the farm while tending the children. Further economic hardship is created by Alice's legal expenses. As in A Thousand Acres, the heroine's family finds itself feverishly trying to create an impression of “normalcy” for a community that is reinforced by predatory governmental agencies: “If we let ourselves fall apart, the neighbors, or the police, might descend upon us and pick our bones clean” (167).
If the Cook farm floats on pesticide-laced water as well as on its hidden past, Prairie Center in A Map of the World is contaminated solely by spiritual pollutants. While Smiley seems to cast blame primarily on the men in the community, Hamilton distributes blame equally, noting the importance of another mother in accusing Alice. At the elementary school, values are so skewed that instead of being seen as a healer, the nurse is perceived as a criminal who gives children shots and molests them. A single mother whose sexual acts are witnessed by her son paints herself as a martyr to virtue. Instead of being innocents, boys spread vile rumors of a sexual nature.
In contrast to Smiley's novel, where the family colludes to keep secrets from the community (and the community chooses not to see these secrets), the town in Map of the World is the source of malicious gossip. Innuendo becomes a means of asserting power, ideology a crushing machine. Howard argues, “Lawyers, people in the system, politicians, were so crippled by bureaucracy and jargon they no longer had common sense” (133). A domestic policy that finally begins to attend to sex crimes becomes an agency of power against the very people it was designed to help when social service employees attempt to deprive Howard and Alice of their children.
Ironically, Alice finds a kind of peace and redemption in prison, a community of women created and regulated by the state, so marginalized that it bears no regional markers. Bill Kent is critical of Alice's “ennobling but unconvincing jailhouse epiphany” (1994, 26), yet it seems necessary because Alice believes her incarceration compensates for the girl's drowning. When she is attacked by another inmate, Alice “took it, like a sponge” (Hamilton 1994, 302).
More importantly, Alice finds herself in a community that is not built on illusions of righteousness or truth. Even though prison life is highly regimented, the prisoners find ways to subvert the system. Cruelty and violence are out in the open, and the inmates acknowledge that truths may be varied, multiple, and anarchic:
Jail is one of the last holdouts on earth, a place where there is still an oral tradition. Sometimes I think the inmates made trouble not only so there'd be a story to tell, but so there'd be five stories to tell, each rendition becoming funnier or more grotesque or outlandish. There were stories to tell certainly, but there were also stories to tell about the telling of the stories. Although I long ago lost faith in the idea of Truth, I knew that once I spoke, the stories would take on their own shape, their own truth.
Alice's neighbors gain tremendous satisfaction in telling stories, too. The difference is that the women in jail do not—and cannot—exert power over others by insisting their accounts are the “legal” versions. Their marginality resembles the isolation of Ginny and Rose's daughters at the end of A Thousand Acres.
The scars left by the community's stories are indelible. The accusations that cause Alice's incarceration are designed to protect the children of the community, but disrupt her family irremediably. Howard and Teresa seek solace together temporarily, creating guilt and discomfort. Later, Howard must sell the farm in exchange for a sterile, minuscule townhouse: “The whole place was deceptive. Here, it seemed to squeak and stink, is the American dream. Except that everything we were supposed to want, everything that looked so good, was too small or too flimsy for use” (263). When Alice is freed, the family is reunited, but, as in A Thousand Acres, the victory, if one could call it that, is small. The farm is lost and becomes a retreat for urban Boy Scouts. The Goodwins have become separated from the land, from the myth of regionalism that sustained them.
The tone of the ending is muted. If Smiley's novel is a manual on family relations, Hamilton's book tells us that even Arcadia contains ponds that may be dangerous. Alice observes: “the terrible thing is that there is so much good, and gradually it slips away from you. I had not believed until last summer that loss is determined, charted” (387). The map Alice made as a child was of a dream world, where she sat, “imagining myself in an ideal country, alone and at peace” (382). Now her family remains alone, even though they are “outcasts making a perfect circle” of forgiveness (382).
Like Smiley's heroine, Alice must carry the scars of the past in her mind and on her body. The conclusion of this novel provides more resolution, though it, too, connects the downfall of the family farm with corruption in the country's moral fiber. In locating the corruption primarily outside the family, Hamilton does not ultimately condemn farmers or families themselves. Perhaps this is because she depicts a universe after the farm crisis of 1985. The Goodwins, who were not born farmers, have tried to insert themselves in a story about the Midwest that is already over. Their farm has always been a zoo (literally and figuratively), so it is appropriate that Howard ends up working in one.
Moreover, like Ginny, Alice invokes the various and deceptive faces “truth” can wear. While Ginny challenges public perceptions of wife and daughter, Alice throws into question the ideological agendas implicit in definitions of such terms as mother and nurse. Alice is perceived as a failure in the community, even as a force of evil, because she embodies alternate visions of these common occupations. Even though her idealized existence is shattered by her experiences, her story exists, a small nub embedded in the fabric of society. Howard is pessimistic, however, about its permanence: “She would be the great-great-grandmother who spent several months in jail. The ancestor who abused the boy. … It seemed cruel that her afterlife was already determined” (230). She will be silenced by the weight of others' versions of events, which reflect larger social beliefs.
The question of whether and how much difference is tolerated by the community is even more pronounced in Mukherjee's Jasmine, another novel concerning a woman's attempts at self-definition. Even though the novel was not written by a Midwesterner, Jasmine offers significant variations on the themes developed in Hamilton's and Smiley's texts. Beginning in India and ending with a journey to California, Mukherjee's text presents a “map of the world” that is embedded in a regional setting even more explicitly than A Thousand Acres or A Map of the World itself.
Moreover, Jasmine invokes the distinction between regional and regionalist texts or characters only to throw it into question. On one level, Jasmine renders the very distinction moot, because the heroine takes different perspectives during various points in her life. On another level, the novel offers both regional and regionalist perspectives simultaneously. Jasmine is a regional work in the sense that it is written and narrated by an outsider with critical distance from the milieu. At the same time, it offers a regionalist perspective, giving voice to the increasing numbers of Asian immigrants in the Midwest, individuals who may be marginalized on the basis of linguistic, racial, and cultural differences. Most importantly, the novel draws attention to the fact that distinctions between insiders/outsiders are questionable, because they are based on discriminations made by those empowered and rendered visible by their status as members of the majority.
These distinctions between insiders and outsiders come into play as Jasmine travels around the world, adopting different personas. She is given various names—Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase, and Jane—to indicate the shifting phases of her existence. Having emigrated to the United States and served as a nanny in New York for several years, Jasmine chooses exile in Elsa County, Iowa, because it is the birthplace of Duff, the adopted little girl she looked after. The money from the adoption covered Duff's mother's college tuition, and the opportunity to be her nanny offers Jasmine an escape from the stifling Indian community in Flushing. Consequently, Jasmine decides, “Iowa was a state where miracles still happened” (Mukherjee 1989, 175). For Jasmine, Duff—and, by extension, the county of her birth—initially represents openness, acceptance, freedom, and caring.
Once again, the Midwest—with the community of Baden—is presented as an idyllic environment. Jasmine is offered a job as a teller and rapidly enters a relationship with Bud Ripplemayer, the bank's manager and “secular god of Baden” (174). The breakup of Bud's first marriage causes a stir, but as Jasmine and Bud adopt Du, a Vietnamese child, and Jasmine becomes pregnant, they appear to blend back into the community of families.
Like Smiley's Ginny, Jasmine offers advice about understanding the Midwest and farmers' lives. She explains that unfed hogs sound like abused children and that farmers need to get away from their responsibilities in winter. Additional information is reported, often originating with Bud or his ex-wife Karin: “Bud always says, of young farmers or the middle-aged ones with shaky operations, Look out for drinking” (19). In this community, too, character and the success of a farm are inextricably linked: “The First Bank of Baden has survived in harsh times because Bud can read people's characters. Out here, it's character that pays the bills or doesn't, because everything else is just about equal” (20). This determination of character exists as part of a network of gossip, which is communicated over the telephone and at events such as quilt sales.
Community gossip reveals danger under the town's bucolic veneer. In contrast to the towns in the other two novels, in Elsa, violence is so frequent as to seem almost banal. “Over by Osage a man beat his wife with a spade, then hanged himself in his machine shed” (138), comments Jasmine flatly. Bud is shot and paralyzed by Harlan Kroener, “a disturbed and violent farmer” (170), and Darrel Lutz, the owner of a neighboring farm, adopts the rhetoric of hate groups and eventually commits suicide.
The violence is driven both by a literal drought and the drying up of credit, which in turn is caused by government policy. Whereas Bud “used to welcome” the state inspectors' visits,
it's become impersonal. Cranky bureaucrats, men with itchy collars and high-pitched voices, suggesting that this looks like a bad loan, and this and this, saying in pained voices that a banker who cosigns his neighbor's loan … is getting that farmer in a tougher spot.
In the communities in Smiley's and Hamilton's books, bankers are associated with the external forces destroying farms; here “[e]ven a banker is still a farmer at heart” (171). The enemies are functionaries enforcing policies that trap farmers in debt and despair, tearing apart their families.
A few farmers are able to leave for winter or to negotiate loans to develop and sell their land. Others are rooted like crops in the soil. As Karin comments bitterly (and somewhat comically), “I won a Purple ribbon in a 4H state fair with my How-to-Pack-a-Suitcase demo … but I never got to travel” (181). Yet economics alone do not determine who will go. Karin notes that “She could have [left], but she chose to stay” (203). What really traps local residents is an inability to conceptualize other parts of the world as distinct: “In Baden, the farmers are afraid to suggest I'm different. … They want to make me familiar” (29). Bud never questions Jasmine about India because “it scares him” (9); to the extent that he recognizes her past, he does so in clichéd terms that cast Asia as Other, unknown: “Bud courts me because I am alien. I am darkness, mystery, inscrutability” (178). “The family's only other encounter with Asia” (14) was when Bud's brother Vern was killed in Korea, adding to the aura of danger and silence surrounding the continent. Torn between ignoring difference and fearing its perils, the inhabitants of Elsa County have no compelling reason to leave home.
Even Jasmine denies difference. Of Florida, she says, “The landscape was not unfamiliar: monsoon season in Punjab” (97). Iowa is flat like Punjab (4), and the farmers there remind Jasmine of the ones she “grew up with” (8). The Indians in Flushing “had kept a certain kind of Punjab alive, even if that Punjab no longer existed” (143), so that after a while, Jasmine notices that “I had come to America and lost my English” (143). Unlike the inhabitants of Elsa County, however, Jasmine is repulsed by such similarities, especially since the greatest resemblance is in the area of regional or factional prejudice.
To the extent that Midwestern characters acknowledge the existence of otherness, they do so only to tame or domesticate it. Asia and Africa provide the women of Baden and Elsa County multiple opportunities for charitable events, such as quilt sales. These allow the women to socialize and trade news. At a fair to raise funds for starving Ethiopians, the women seem oblivious to the fact that “[e]very quilt auctioned, every jar of apple butter licked clean had helped somebody like me [Jasmine]” (179). The merchandise consists of little more than cast-offs from local families. Instead of representing genuine compassion for the sufferings of others, the objects seem designed to elide any sign of difference or exoticism:
There was a model tractor commemorating John Deere's fortieth anniversary. All the dolls had yellow hair. It had been a simpler America. The toys weren't unusual or valuable; they were shabby, an ordinary family's cared-for memorabilia. Bud's generic past crowded in display tables. I felt too exotic, too alien.
The surface of Baden, with its deliberate and continual references to a “simpler America,” obscures violence and difference in the same way that the apparent fertility of the farm in A Thousand Acres hides subterranean pollution. As in Map of the World, the locals blame outsiders for the violence, but like Alice, Jasmine shows repeatedly that it is inherent in the community. Moreover, even though Jasmine remarks, “Every night the frontier creeps a little closer” (16), immigrants remain invisible. At the hospital, Asian doctors treat women, but one has to “poke around” (27) to find them. The stories of people like Jasmine and Du remain undocumented, outside the law and the “official” versions of the television newscasts (23). The silencing of foreignness exemplifies the “conservative, nostalgic” qualities of regionalism described by Warren Johnson, who notes that “[r]egionalism would seem to be the converse of exoticism. The depiction of the foreign and exotic frequently seeks to evoke what is repressed in the dominant culture for being extreme or excessive” (1994, 105) and is thus perceived as threatening.
Despite its international flavor, then, Mukherjee's novel insists on fragmentation and regional conflict in a way that the other two works do not. From the beginning, for instance, Jasmine specifies that Baden is neither Danish or Swedish, but German (8). The early sections of the novel show the effects of Sikh separatism and of a terrorist attack that kills Jasmine's first husband. Not only does the murderer reappear in Central Park, but when Darrel Lutz begins to lose his sanity, he accuses Bud of being a tool of the Eastern establishment (193). There is even a pecking order among immigrants; Du, who is from urban Saigon, looks down on the Hmong émigrés (130). Ironically, even though such prejudices constantly invoke difference, they ultimately render it impossible to distinguish between insiders and outsiders; the policies that create have and have-nots also spawn endless numbers of factions, and factions within factions.
Rather than embracing such fragmentation, Jasmine leaves Bud for the “perfectly American” Taylor (151), choosing a myth of nationality over the actuality of factionalism, a fiction of self-development over a narrative of entrapment. Jasmine's departure echoes Ginny's abandonment of the farm in Smiley's novel. Jasmine has changed with her names from the timid Indian widow who wanted to immolate herself to the self-sufficient Iowa farm woman tending a handicapped husband. Her ability to transform herself, gained through years of traveling and suffering, distinguishes her from the rooted Iowa women: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave” (203).8
In much canonical literature, the quest is presented as a male prerogative, while females remain at home. One could therefore argue that much regional literature is gendered as female because “characters in regional fiction are rooted” (Fetterley and Pryse 1992, xvii), too. In her discussions of some of the nineteenth-century texts she analyzes, Kolodny (1984) supports these assertions, tracing the historical efforts of pioneer women to cultivate their environment, rendering it homelike and familiar. Yet, even as these three novels about farming in the 1980s question ideological and social traditions, they break with literary convention by presenting female characters who choose, or are forced, to journey. Their itinerancy is instigated by the devastation of the land and the accompanying cruelty of its owners. Women such as Ginny in A Thousand Acres and Alice in A Map of the World ultimately must forge urban existences, contradicting stereotypes that gender the earth as female and portray it as freer and somehow purer than the city. Similarly, Jasmine is a traveler leaving behind natives and other migrants who have walled themselves in: “the frontier is pushing indoors through uncaulked windows” (Mukherjee 1989, 214).
With its reference to the frontier and “uncaulked windows” of makeshift abodes, the conclusion of Mukherjee's novel reinscribes itself within the lore of America's past, reinforcing a notion that anything is possible for someone with the correct spirit. Indeed, Jasmine constitutes a female version of the myth of the self-made American: “We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams” (1989, 25). If, as she claims, the people of Elsa County are “puritans,” then Jasmine is one of the Elect (1989, 204), protected by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
Jasmine's “Rescuer” (1989, 187), the man who encourages her to escape from Iowa, is Taylor. Yet Jasmine's decision to follow Taylor is ambiguous. Jasmine presents the choice as liberatory: “I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old world dutifulness.” The America she claims for herself is one where “Adventure, risk, [and] transformation” are possible. Taylor is not taking her back to New York but to the Western edge of the country—California—which is also Du's new home. The novel concludes with the heroine “reckless from hope” (1989, 214) like a male adventurer in a nineteenth-century novel.
But what has Jasmine chosen? She is initially attracted to Taylor because he seems “entirely American”: “I fell in love with what he represented to me, a professor who served biscuits to a servant, smiled at her, and admitted her to the broad democracy of his joking, even when she didn't understand it” (1989, 148). This statement makes an essentialist equation between being an upper middle class intellectual and being American, as if to be a banker/farmer in the Midwest were somehow less American (a comment that reverses many stereotypes, even as it colludes with 1980s political rhetoric against farmers). Although Jasmine denies being a “gold digger” (1989, 174), one cannot help wondering about Taylor's increased attraction after Bud is paralyzed and his bank is increasingly controlled by outsiders, given the importance of financial success in the myth of the self-made American. Similarly, Jasmine's astoundingly rapid acquisition of knowledge of literary classics such as Jane Eyre, together with her ready acceptance outside the immigrant world, obscures the realities and prejudice in American society.
The world Jasmine chooses, then, is not free of the ideological illusions surrounding the Midwest of the 1980s. Like the heroines in Smiley's and Hamilton's works, one could argue that Jasmine has chosen a diminished realm and a fractured or weakened family. Taylor offers not wholeness but an “unorthodox family” (1989, 212), appropriately, as he is a physicist specializing in subatomic particles. Moreover, Jasmine's departure leaves traditional family structures and roles intact; although Jasmine claims that she is relinquishing her role as a “caregiver” (1989, 214), she initially met Taylor when she was his child's nurse, and she will continue to tend Duff. It is questionable, therefore, whether the move is truly liberatory, or whether her narrative merely reinscribes conventional gender and power relations: “As exotic caregiver, homemaker, and temptress, Jane is the model immigrant woman who says and does nothing to challenge the authority or ethnocentrism of the white American male” (Grewal 1993 191). If this is the case, the manual embedded in the text is not so much a guide to the Midwest as a revision of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, another work that equates character and worldly success.
To the extent that Jasmine has learned about America, she has familiarized herself with a 1980s ideology that lays claim to classlessness but looks down on farmers, that values technology and money over the vagaries of crops, livestock, and the weather. Even though Jasmine bears the psychic and physical effects of rape, she seems reborn after killing her attacker and slicing her tongue, effectively silencing herself. The effects of this violence do not seem indelibly written on her body, although Bud is permanently crippled and can only father a child with the assistance of technology. The novel seemingly liberates Jasmine, but fails to challenge a system that traps and oppresses many Midwesterners. Similarly, the novel elides the fates of most immigrants, who continue their undocumented existences on the margins of the American economy. By leaving such social and political structures in place—and suppressing alternative stories—Jasmine bows to their power. The book gestures toward a regionalist perspective that “speaks for us, the new Americans from nontraditional immigrant countries” (Mukherjee 1988, 1), but ultimately settles for a critical distance from the newly reconstituted Midwest.
Taken together with A Thousand Acres and A Map of the World, Jasmine demonstrates that fiction continues to document the complicated effects of social beliefs and economic trends on individuals, as well as the silencing of women, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalized. Like their predecessors, today's novelists express nostalgia for a more harmonious form of life; however, they reveal the flawed nature of earlier social visions and question the public's acceptance of them. In the end, the heroines leave their farms for lives in town, indicating a certain resignation among the authors to the overwhelming power of dominant ideologies concerning women, farming, and family in 1980s America.
Ultimately, the ambiguous endings of all three novels, including the heroines' mixed success at finding a more liberated existence, have significant implications for our readings of contemporary women's regionalist fiction. While this fiction succeeds in giving voice to the unheard and offering a critique of agrarian idealism, the authors are unable to conceive of a world where women can extricate themselves from powerful discourses pertaining to gender, social policy, and politics. The protagonists offer readers advice, but the advice is not what it seems, outdated, or useless. The strength of regionalist fiction—that it comments from inside the region rather than from outside—is also its weakness, for it cannot rise above community structures and social ideology. For women heroines, this means that their narratives must express nostalgia for a past that never was and dream of future unity that may never be.
Together with these pieces on interior design, country music enjoyed a swell in popularity, promoted by such films as Urban Cowboy (1980) and Coal Miner's Daughter (1980).
Three 1985 films—Country, Places in the Heart, and The River—depicted greedy bankers. They portrayed the struggles of families to stay together and remain solvent. A fourth film, Sweet Dreams, offered an escape from the hardships of rural living, depicting Patsy Cline as a nearly saintly figure.
In analyzing women's perceptions of the prairie, Fairbanks provides examples of “four broad categories: Prairie as Garden, Prairie as Wilderness, Prairie as Real Estate, and Prairie as Wasteland” (1986, 68). When discussing texts about the 1980s, the last two categories seem particularly apposite.
“Interaction in Farm Families: Tension and Stress,” by Rosenblatt and Anderson (1981), cites similar factors, such as intergenerational land transfers and struggles for control.
More than that, the dump evokes femininity and particular features of female anatomy. Situated “at the back of the farm, in a cleft behind a wild rose thicket,” nature there is “untamed” (Smiley, 1991, 123). “The ‘shade tree … [which] sported thick, needle like thorns” (122) echo the image of the vagina dentata, emblem of men's fear of uncontrolled women. It is no wonder, then, that only the rebellious Jess will risk sexual encounters in the place. Nevertheless, like the others, he “used it for refuse” (122), since he late betrays Ginny.
A consideration of some of Smiley's other works reveals a certain consistency. In The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), Smiley offers the narrative of a nineteenth-century woman in the Kansas Territory. A selection from Catherine Beecher's manual for women precedes each chapter which comments ironically upon the advice. In the novella Good Will young family attempts to create a self-sufficient farm. For a while, their “kind of paradise” (1989, 173) blooms literally and figuratively. Yet prejudice surfaces when their son torments an African-American girl (in an inversion of stereotypes, she and her mother represent urban middle class success). Ordinary Love (in the same volume as Good Will) reflects the powerlessness women against laws that keep them in cold marriages or deprive them of their children. Moreover, like A Thousand Acres, it illustrates the force of rumor and the perception that the federal government has run amuck.
Hamilton's first novel, The Book of Ruth (1990), deals with these themes indirectly, depicting a family in a small town where most of the inhabitants have given up farming for their primary source of income. Some fill menial jobs; others have resigned themselves to permanent unemployment, changing their energies into drugs, alcohol, or abusive behavior. Poverty, ignorance, and anger build until the novel's tragic denouement. Although the government is never explicitly blamed, social and fiscal policies exacerbate the family's desperate circumstances, and the ineffectual, even comical, behavior of government employees clearly contributes to the conclusion.
Jasmine's assertion about “those who stay and those who leave” resembles a statement in Smiley's Ordinary Love: “humans organize their societies in two ways—either as nomadic ones, where everyone walks thousands of miles in his lifetime, or as settlements that everyone flees and then returns to” (1989, 80-81).
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———. 1998. The Short History of a Prince. New York: Random House.
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Inness, Sherrie A., and Diana Royer, eds. 1987. Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Regionalism. Iowa City: Iowa University Press.
Johnson, Warren. 1994. “Regionalism and Value Structure in Erckmann-Chatrian.” In Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field, ed. David Jordan, 105-118. New York: Garland.
Jordan, David, ed. 1994. Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field. New York: Garland.
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Kolodny, Annette. 1984. The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Kowalewski, Michael. 1994. “Bioregional Perspectives in American Literature.” In Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field, ed. David Jordan, 29-46. New York: Garland.
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Mukherjee, Bharati. 1988. “Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!” New York Times Book Review, August 28, 28-29.
———. 1989. Jasmine. New York: Fawcett Crest.
Pryse, Marjorie. 1994. “Reading Regionalism.” In Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field, ed. David Jordan, 47-63. New York: Garland.
Rosenblatt, Paul C., and Roxanne M. Anderson. 1981. “Interaction in Farm Families: Tension and Stress.” In The Family in Rural Society, ed. Raymond T. Coward and William M. Smith, Jr., 147-166. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Schickel, Richard. 1985. “Afterimages.” Rev. of Witness, directed by Peter Wier. 18 Feb., 91.
Smiley, Jane. 1989. Ordinary Love and Good Will. New York: Ivy.
———. 1991. A Thousand Acres. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
———. 1993. Barn Blind. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
———. 1995. Moo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
———. 1998. The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Talley, André L. 1985. “First Person Rural.” Vogue, June, 258-265.
Tevis, Carol. 1992. “Diminished Expectations.” Successful Farming Mid-March, 9-17.
———. 1979. “Mom Is the Key.” Successful Farming, August, 34-35.
“The Twenty-First Century Family.” 1990. Newsweek, Winter/Spring [Special Issue].
Walter, John. 1992. “Environment.” Editorial on A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley. Successful Farming, April, 63.
Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 15 October 2000)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327
SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. Review of Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton. Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 October 2000): 11.
[In the following review, Reynolds assesses the characters of Disobedience in light of typical family relations in modern society.]
Henry [in Disobedience] is 17, a bit of a hacker but not completely solitary. His sister Elvira is 13 and obsessed with the Civil War. In reenactments that she lives to participate in, she pretends to be a boy. Henry's mother, Beth Shaw, is a folk musician; his father, the socialist, teaches history at a high school in Chicago, where the family moved from Vermont. Henry learns by reading his mother's e-mail that she is having a passionate affair with a violin maker. For an entire year, he reads and prints her e-mails, saying nothing. He's got his own dramas to play out, a lovely girlfriend in another state named Lily, his certain-to-be-gay sister, his mother's strident book group friends who hate all men, his slightly dull good-guy dad. Not to mention another e-mail he reads in which he learns that a psychic has told his mother that in a past life she was married to her son. Hamilton's stories of family life always have a great deal of edge and ambiguity in them. She does not shrink from the lines that get crossed in family life behind closed doors, and this archeology is important work. Her characters are unusually intelligent, with all of the tools to become full and happy adults, so there is not a lot of whining and wallowing. In fact, there is a lot of laughing in serious moments, a lot of distance from the sentimental and the heavy. This may be a good thing, but it does tend to flatten the drama in Hamilton's prose and to flatten the weight of pain among various transgressions, from hurt feelings to adultery. In this, the structure of the novel resembles family life, in which normalcy and continuity prevail at all costs.
Ron Charles (review date 9 November 2000)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “A Family Quartet out of Tune with Itself.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 245 (9 November 2000): 18.
[In the following review, Charles analyzes the principal characters of Disobedience in terms of the relationship between technology and human nature.]
Jane Hamilton has written a novel so disturbing that no one will enjoy reading it. But Disobedience is so provocative that you must.
Certain books capture the interaction between new technology and old human weakness at just the right moment. In The Octopus, Frank Norris used the sprawling railroads of 1901 to explore the ancient terror of losing control of one's destiny. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald plowed a flame-yellow car through a reckless fantasy of self-invention. In 2001, Arthur Clarke programmed the world's most modern computer to remind us of the old danger of hubris.
Someday, literary historians will look back at Disobedience and whisper, “You've got mail.” Could the ancient prophet of Galilee have anticipated the secret backup file when he warned. “There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed”?
With stunning economy, the narrator of this haunting novel, Henry Shaw, describes his senior year in high school—the year he fell in love, his sister shaved her head, and his mother committed adultery.
It's an old story, as Henry reminds us, but the latest technology has transformed it. He begins with these words: “Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it. … No smudge of ink, no greasy thumb print left behind. In and out of the files, no trace.”
Children have been spying on their parents since the kids found Noah drunk in his tent. But the illusion of e-mail privacy alters the dangers of illicit intimacy and the possibilities for surveillance.
When Henry accidentally opens his mother's AOL account, he discovers a passionate correspondence between straight-laced Mrs. Shaw and a musician in Wisconsin. In that moment, he's entangled in a web of betrayal and sexual fantasy that he never escapes.
At a time when he should be exploring his own fresh feelings of romance, he's stained by the intimate details of his mother's affair. He eavesdrops on their adulterous correspondence for months, carefully printing out their letters and storing them in his room for further study.
Throughout the narrative, sometimes in the same paragraph, he refers to his mother with a variety of names—Mom, Liza, Mrs. Shaw, Beth, Elizabeth, the fornicatress, Liza38—reflecting the grotesquely confused nature of his relationship with her. In the most excruciating passages of this Freudian nightmare, we can hear echoes from her e-mail woven into his own courtship and fantasies.
Seeing his mother from the inside-out alters his relationship with his sister and father, too. Once he's started down the path of spying, he can't help treating them all as subjects of his cynical critique.
Mr. Shaw teaches history with a special emphasis on debunking romantic notions of America's heritage. Henry, who's already seen enough romantic notions debunked, is baffled by his father's “insistent joy.” How, he wonders, can his father be enthusiastic about the past if he knows the ugly details of slavery, war, and betrayal. To Henry, it's the same blindness that allows him to stay married to a woman he should discern is cheating on him.
Gradually, though, he comes to appreciate his father's mysterious tolerance, largely because he sees how crucial that attitude is for his younger sister. Elvira is a confirmed tom-boy, passionately dedicated to Civil War reenactments. While Mrs. Shaw rages against Elvira's budding lesbianism, Mr. Shaw encourages her interest in history and takes pride in her courage. Ten years later, Henry feels the bitter irony of how well his strange sister turned out, while he, the perfect son, remains so disturbed.
When Henry mentions that he focused on the work of Henry James in college, the influence is clear; he's inscribed himself into his own Jamesian tale, complete with a heavy dose of Freudian allusions. Hamilton's greatest accomplishment here is this narrative voice—a psychologically astute creation that's compelling and chilling. How masterfully she creates a character who jokes he was a middle-aged teenager, but now sounds like an adolescent adult. He has the voice of a 17-year-old boy forced to grow up too fast but the perspective of a grown man arrested in boyhood by exposure to the e-primal scene.
It's surprising, but there are also comic moments in this troubling tale of dysfunction. For instance, when Elvira insists on wearing a Confederate uniform (with sword) to a cousin's wedding, we can hear all the rhythms of family tension rising into absurdity.
Disobedience is an exquisite vase teetering on the table's edge. One wrong move by Mrs. Shaw or Henry could shatter their family beyond repair. One wrong line by Hamilton could drop the story into moralism—another chauvinist classic about the damage wrought by an immoral woman. But Mrs. Shaw is no wanton monster, and Henry is no innocent victim. Managing that precarious, psychological wobble is a remarkable feat.
Twice touched by Oprah's golden wand (The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World), Hamilton has produced some of the most discussed novels of the past decade. Clearly, this is another troubling masterpiece in what's fast become a remarkable body of work.
Jane Hamilton and Pegi Taylor (interview date January 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3619
SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Pegi Taylor. “Jane Hamilton: Good Writing Is in the Details.” Writer 114, no. 1 (January 2001): 26-31.
[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses her writing process and teaching career, her inspiration for and significance of various elements in Disobedience, and the roles of setting and humor in her novels.]
Jane Hamilton has had a meteoric writing career. Her novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel in 1989. A Map of the World, her second novel, landed on The New York Times bestseller list in 1994. Both books, which feature rural women struggling to come to terms with irreparable loss, were chosen by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for her television book club; in 1999, a film version of A Map of the World was released starring Sigourney Weaver.
Hamilton's third novel, The Short History of a Prince (1998), was a startling departure from her first two. The protagonist, Walter McCloud, is a gay man in mid-life reviewing his adolescence, when he dreamed of dancing in a production of The Nutcracker: His ballet teacher forces him to realize he lacked sufficient skills, and his passion for his first male lover is brutally rebuffed. At the same time, Walter's older brother becomes terminally ill.
Hamilton spoke to The Writer shortly before embarking on a publicity tour for her fourth novel, Disobedience. Her latest work chronicles a year in the life of the Shaw family, as narrated by 17-year-old Henry. The family lives in suburban Chicago, where the father, Kevin, teaches history at a progressive high school. Henry focuses his attention on his sister, 13-year-old Elvira, who takes on the persona of a boy to participate in Civil War reenactments, and their piano-playing mother, Beth, whom Henry discovers is having an affair with a violin maker. Tensions in the family come to a head on the way to a Battle of Shiloh reenactment. Hamilton explores both teenage and middle-age malaise with great sensitivity and humor.
Hamilton lives on an apple orchard in Rochester, Wis., with her husband, Bob Willard, and two teenage children, Ben and Hannah. While writing in her second-floor office at home, she looks out over rolling farmland. She may see a whooping crane, the apple trees in full blossom, or some of their sheep grazing in the pasture. Most days, whether tromping through snow or hidden by cornstalks, she takes a walk through the countryside as a break from writing.
Laughing often, Hamilton speaks with great vitality, but with equal care. She is intensely curious, asking almost as many questions as she answers. A voracious reader with a remarkable memory, she has strong opinions about contemporary fiction and even recites some poetry.
[Taylor]: What would you call the most difficult part of writing?
[Hamilton:] For me, it will probably always be the first draft. This is a quote from someone: “You have to be willing to commit bad words to paper to write anything at all.” The sentences don't flow and the details aren't quite right. The first draft is sort of outline-ish, and I wouldn't want anyone to read it.
You said in a Random House interview that “The Book of Ruth was fueled by Ruth's voice,” and “In A Map of the World, I felt propelled by the incidents.” What fueled The Short History of a Prince and Disobedience?
Each book has a kernel that is the starting point and, in a way, its own fuel. In The Short History of a Prince, I was interested in capturing that whole ballet school dynamic. That was the kernel and then there were other elements that fell into the story. The Short History, in particular, isn't fueled by the voice or the plot. The one who carries it is Walter himself. The plot and voice hang on him. Disobedience is a book about voice, and everything is hung on Henry's voice.
Your ear for dialog seems at its best in Disobedience, from Beth Shaw's women friends ranting about men, to Elvira's teenage friend Hilare mouthing off, to disjointed family conversations at the dinner table. How were you able to handle so many different voices with authenticity?
I did something I'd never done before that was helpful: I read the work chapter by chapter into a tape recorder and then listened to it while driving long distances. It was a strange thing. I felt like I was a fresh reader, a fresh listener. It was probably not the best highway driving I've done. I'd think, “Oh my God, I've got to change that word,” and then scribble little notes to myself. But it was very useful, and I would recommend it as a technique for anybody.
You've spoken about reading all your novels out loud to your husband. What happens when you read your books to him?
I read the work to Bob when I can go no farther. I read the end of Disobedience to him, which I knew wasn't right, and I couldn't quite figure it out. I read it out loud to myself, but there's something about his presence in the room and hearing the words through his ears that makes it possible to instantly identify a phrase, a sentence or a scene that doesn't work.
There's nothing like reading something you've made to a specific listener. He knows where everything comes from. It's very gratifying. He laughs and cries in just about all the right places. You can't have more of an experience with a book than that.
Disobedience includes over a dozen e-mails as part of the text, as well as a few letters. Why did you decide to add this epistolary element to the novel?
I knew there had to be some way for Henry to find out what his mother was up to. It is a device. I didn't suddenly in the middle of it decide to include those e-mails. They were there almost from the very start. They have to reveal what his mother, as well as the lover, is thinking and feeling. Letters can be useful as a revealing tool for all kinds of characters. The reader can understand, in a way Henry can't, what the letters mean.
What are you thinking about when you form the initial paragraph of a chapter?
Those beginnings are important because they have to take you into the body of the chapter. They have to seize the reader. Some writers write to please their readers; some writers couldn't care less. I don't write for readers—that is, I try not to worry about whether a reader will be comfortable or pleased—but I do feel it's important to have a good start and to draw the reader in. I'm aware of not having an inert first paragraph.
In your syllabus for a fiction-writing course you taught at Carleton College in 1996, you quote Willa Cather: “Art should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole.” Can you give an example of your own simplifying process?
I wrote a 20-page prologue for The Short History of a Prince, and I knew it wasn't interesting to anybody but myself. My editor said I should get rid of it, and I knew she was right. I condensed it down to about four pages. It was distilling the essence—taking the most important things and whittling it down. Sometimes you don't need to write about everything.
You plant a powerful image early on in Disobedience. Henry has recently discovered his mother's affair and realizes, “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind's eye, hold her ever my knee, like a stick, bust her in two.” Can you remember how that image emerged?
Well, I remember thinking that no self-respecting teenage boy would really spend much time thinking about his mother having sex. Children in general don't like to imagine their parents engaged in that activity. So then I began to think, “What does Henry have to do to think about her in that way?” which he actually does quite a bit. The “breaking” seemed like the only possible way, giving him a certain power, making him the master puppeteer.
Do you have a particular stance toward the use of metaphorical language?
People tend to use too many metaphors. I've come to this as a reader. When I read I often want to edit on the spot: “unnecessary.” It's very, very rare to have a metaphor that actually works, that has the power to stun. I think just from reading enough fiction where metaphors weren't aptly used, I've cut them out myself.
You're known as a writer who does extensive revisions. Do you revise in stages, looking for certain aspects like characterization, or do you go after everything at once? Do some parts, like the opening or closing, get more attention than others?
Generally, I'll write the first couple of chapters over and over and over again until I have the momentum to go to the middle. And I'll write that, and then I'll start again at the beginning and go through the middle. And then I'll start again at the beginning and go through the middle. And then I'll take a sprint to the end. And then I'll start over, because the ending changes how the beginning is, and the middle. And then I'll go through it again, and then I'll go through it again, and then I'll go through it again. Then the ending will need attention. I'll start in the middle and go to the end, and then just work the end, the end, the end, the end, the end. And then, usually, I go through it again.
For me the pleasure is going over it, having the details fall into place and hearing it in a different way each time. I have tried to respect the amount of time it takes.
In your syllabus for the fiction-writing course, you advised students to “Look at life through your character's eyes as you eat lunch, go to sleep, wake up, brush your teeth, walk around campus.” What was it like to walk around as teenage Henry for a couple of years?
Well, I had to listen to that awful music. I knew that he was funny initially, had that wry, ironic sensibility, but I didn't know how deeply sad he was going to be. I kept trying to talk him out of it. One of my pet lines is when he says in his ambivalent, wishy-washy jeans way, “In those days my heart, I guess it was, sank more or less, every day.” We grew together in that element.
In a Publisher's Weekly interview, you said the characters in your first two novels were “only warm-ups” for Walter. How were the characters in your prior three novels warm-ups for Henry?
I could not have written this book without first writing about Walter. Walter and Henry are in many senses related. Elvira is sort of a flip side of Walter. She's not comfortable with her gender and her identity. But I think Walter had that same ironic sensibility that Henry has. I think those books are linked in a way that the other two books aren't.
The Library Journal said your forte was “depicting adolescents left not by villainy but by circumstances on the fringes of family life while they figure out ways to raise themselves.” This is true for Henry in Disobedience, too. What do you think is the source of this gift?
I've always been interested in adolescence—that time in your life when, in many ways, you're very powerful and yet you know you're essentially powerless. It's a terrible tension, and I find it very compelling.
What do you consider most important for creating a fully realized character?
Every detail you include for the character has to be psychologically true to that character. And that's something you can only accomplish with time. You can write something and think it's terrific and really be married to the sentence—and get distracted by the fact that the detail in that lovely sentence doesn't really fit the character. So you have to be very careful. Care and time will prove to you whether those details actually work. God, I've come to agree, is in the details.
Place plays a huge role in all your novels. In Disobedience, Henry contrasts his teenage years in Illinois with his early childhood in Vermont. At one point, he suddenly feels homesick for Vermont and laments, “I missed the shape in the near and far distance, of mountains, what was so grotesquely absent in the Midwest.” All your other novels describe the Midwest's beauty. What did it take to turn a critical eye on this landscape?
I was writing this book and doing a reading at a bookstore in the Midwest when the topic of landscape came up. A woman from West Virginia started talking about how much she missed the mountains and what it felt like to be without them. I was casting about for ways to think about the landscape, and I did borrow things she said that illuminated for me what it really would be like to live without mountains.
Publisher's Weekly called A Map of the World “a piercing picture of domestic relationships under the pressure of calamitous circumstances.” The husband and wife, Alice and Howard Goodwin, tell the story in Map. Henry relates the calamitous domestic circumstances in Disobedience. What opportunities or frustrations did writing about a marriage from a teenage son's point of view afford you?
No one can know what goes on in a marriage. Children can't, although they are as close to it as anybody. I wanted to show what the marriage was as much as possible, but I couldn't do it completely because Henry's telling it. And that did represent a certain challenge. Kevin Shaw gets short shrift in the book; he's the most mysterious character. I probably did fail to have him shine through past Henry's pen. That was a frustration, and one that I was trying to figure out how to fix up to the last minute.
Both Henry and his friend Karen witness and describe a crucial scene, where Beth comes to her daughter's aid at a Shiloh reenactment. Henry and Karen evaluate the mother's actions quite differently. Why did you decide to juxtapose these two perceptions? Don't you risk the trustworthiness of Henry as narrator?
All along he's reliable in his unreliability. I first knew what he saw, and then I realized that what he saw was not complete, or that there was a different point of view. Karen came in very handy because I didn't want to have Beth Shaw tell it. I would think the reader would still trust Henry, because what he sees is true to himself and makes sense for him. He doesn't step out of himself to tell it.
All of your novels are written in the first person except The Short History of a Prince. Why did you write Disobedience in the first person?
It's the way it came to me. I tried to write A Map of the World in the third person, and I strained for it, even though deep down I knew it didn't serve the book well. Eventually I ditched it and wrote it in the first person. When I wrote a story about Elvira in 1996, it was written in the first person from Henry's point of view. For some reason, I can't say precisely why, he was always the one in charge of the narrative, the filter. It happens at an intuitive level. It's one of the first things that come.
In Disobedience, you write, “Through her music Beth Shaw expressed the typical sentiments of a classical pianist: beauty, the briefness of rapture, and let's not forget sadness, sorrowing, the grandeur of lost passion, lost youth.” How does this list compare to what you want to express through your writing?
I'm most interested in trouble and how people relate to each other and themselves as they get through whatever trouble is at hand, whether it's love or lost youth.
Henry says, “I got to thinking that maybe treachery is the only interesting story.” How does treachery play a part in all your novels?
In order to write anything, the writer has to be in touch with the fact of the dark side. Everybody has the experience of treachery in some way or another. What's interesting is discovering what a character is made of, testing that character by letting him react to treachery that is done to others or to himself.
Your editor, Deb Futter, described Disobedience as “funny, even devilish at times.” Did you set out to write a funny novel, or did the characters and plot invite it?
No, I didn't set out for it to be funny, but it was clear to me right away that Henry's sensibilities could amuse me. He looks in his wry way at his sister, so there's lots of comic possibility there. He's just standing back and looking at the whole family dynamic. He was wry from the start, but his material is rich.
What role does humor play in your writing?
Each of the books has funny bits in them—even Alice [A Map of the World]. I think Alice is funny. Not many people pick up on that, and I feel for her in that regard.
As I get older, I rue things that are overly earnest. There are a couple of novels I've read recently that were written by people in their 20s and they were so very, very earnest. My reaction was that if only they'd waited a few more years, they might have been able to make the books a little funny.
You've said in the past that you always know the last lines of your novels from the start. How does having a last line in mind influence your writing?
The last line is merely a beacon; it's a destination. It doesn't mean that the book is going to be didactic, or that it's the final answer, or that it's the message. It's a place to arrive at. You can get there and realize that's not really what you wanted to say after all. It is merely a marker.
What happened to short story Jane? You haven't had a short story in Harper's since “Rehearsing ‘The Fire-bird’” came out in June 1990.
I really think I am a novelist. Disobedience began as a short story about Elvira, and for the amount of disruption that happened in 15 pages, it wasn't believable, it didn't have any weight. In the story, the parents were divorced after Beth ran off with a worker from 3M. Henry's sensibility and Elvira's quirkiness are the survivors of that story. Somewhere along the line I realized that the story could be about the marriage, instead of the divorce.
I wrote, in about 1987, a story called “Sue Rawson's Swindle” and then another story called “Prince,” basically about Walter's dog, but they were just fragments. The stories served as character sketches for The Short History. The stories were very small outlines, just as, I suppose, a painter makes a study for a painting. He draws only the hands or the arms and then, later, you get a painting with all the body parts of several nudes.
You told Publisher's Weekly that you became “paralyzed” while writing A Map of the World. This wasn't an issue for your third or fourth novels. Can you imagine a situation when writer's block might strike you again?
Sure. Any day. Each project is imbued with terror. What if you can't get through it? What if it falls apart? What if there isn't anything there? What if you can't figure out how to end it? What if the middle falls flat? What if, what if, what if? What if in the end you really don't have anything to say?
What haven't I asked you that I should have?
Oh, the title for Disobedience; this is one of the kernels. I got it from A. A. Milne's poem “Disobedience.” [Hamilton recites from memory:]
James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree Took great Care of his Mother, Though he was only three. James James Said to his Mother, “Mother,” he said, said he: “You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don't go down with me.”
James James Morrison's Mother Put on a golden gown, James James Morrison's Mother Drove to the end of the town. James James Morrison's Mother Said to herself, said she: “I can get right down to the end of the town and be back in time for tea.”
I was going to put a little snippet in as an epigraph, but I just didn't want to start the novel with a nursery rhyme. I figured if you knew it, you knew it, and if you didn't, it didn't matter. That poem had such meaning to me, starting with when [my son] Ben came home from D.A.R.E. [the drug education program] and told me I could never have another glass of wine. The child really does not want the parent to have any kind of life that's separate from him. That poem is so perfect.
James James Morrison Morrison (Commonly known as Jim) Told his Other relations Not to go blaming him. James James Said to his Mother, “Mother,” he said, said he: “You must never go down to the end of the town without consulting me.”
Molly McGrann (review date 2 February 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
SOURCE: McGrann, Molly. Review of Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5105 (2 February 2001): 23.
[In the following review, McGrann explores the significance of the disconnect between past and present in the characters of Disobedience, observing that the novel's tension hinges on the relationship between mother and son.]
Thirty-eight-year-old Beth Shaw (Eliza) is having an affair with a Ukrainian violinist, partly conducted through passionate daily e-mails [in Disobedience]. These are discovered by seventeen-year-old Henry Shaw when he accidentally opens his mother's file. “I was the boy in the family and therefore, statistically, the person most likely to seize upon the computer culture, the child to wire the household, tune it into our century.”
The Shaw family are mostly out of step with the twenty-first century: Beth's husband, Kevin, teaches history, and he and their daughter, Elvira, are “living historians” or Civil War re-enactors, spending their weekends sleeping in fields and shooting muskets. In her daily life, thirteen-year-old Elvira prefers to be Elvirnon, a starved drummer boy who wears a hand-stitched 11th Illinois uniform and sleeps on a bedroll on her bedroom floor in the family's comfortable Chicago brownstone. Beth is a pianist with a repertoire of ritual English dancing tunes, and the family vacations each summer at a folk-song and dance camp. Even the technologically inclined Henry is prematurely adult, “perfectly amiable”, his mother brags, playing ping-pong and chess with his “lost-in-the-past” parents.
As gatekeeper to the chat rooms of his mother's infidelity, Henry discovers his own susceptibility to romantic love. “I was seventeen and did not know very much, although I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. In those days my heart, I guess it was, sank more or less every day. I was no longer a boy, not yet a man, nowhere industrious as a dog. I had nothing in me then but useless sorrow.”
Henry's voice, which might otherwise be deemed precocious, has aged ten years and gained an English degree by the time he writes of his mother's giddy infidelity. His perspective is additionally bolstered by sitting in when Beth's reading group comes together to discuss “the inviolate self”, as well as by the wise words of his close friend, the poet Karen, and by his own love experiences, among them Lily, “light and dew, a gust of wind”, the daughter of a hurdy-gurdy player.
Despite the attention Jane Hamilton lavishes on Kevin and Elvira's Civil War activities, Kevin remains a distant, helpless figure. “It is always about her”, Henry admits; the fundamental tension of the novel comes from the relationship between mother and son. Henry, in his twenties, attends film school and for his personal narrative films himself reading aloud his mother's correspondence. His professor wonders, “What's wrong with this kid? Why is he so stuck?” And here is Hamilton's gift, as demonstrated already in The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World: to meditate on the stalled life, “the fresh drama of silence, exile”.
Nicci Gerrard (review date 11 February 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “Truth and Deception.” Observer (11 February 2001): 15.
[In the following review, Gerrard focuses on the emotional consequences of knowledge and truth on the narrator of Disobedience, particularly as they affect his relationship with his mother.]
Jane Hamilton is the chronicler of family relationships; the cartographer of the human heart. Everyday catastrophe blows apart the lives of her characters, so that pain, guilt and all the tensions and terrors of intimacy are exposed. In all her books the domestic is turned into the epic. Sorrow is a human condition. Betrayal becomes an earthquake rumbling along the fault lines of love. A depiction of one quiet tragedy becomes the map of the world. Her novels are lush, long-winded, easy to read, intense and brimming with dangerous emotions. They are melancholy blockbusters.
Disobedience tells an old story: the adulterous relationship between a woman and a man. The woman is a musician, a wife and a mother of two: Mrs. Beth Shaw. The man, Richard Poloco, is a violin player who lives in a wooden cabin, wears shabby clothes and is a seductively two-dimensional cliche, like a pen-and-ink drawing of a romantic lover.
The daughter, Elvira, is beautiful and stubborn and strange; all her adolescent passions channelled into Civil War reconstructions. She dreams not of boys but of glorious slaughter. Henry, the quieter oldest child, narrates the story of his mother's long betrayal, looking back in his late twenties, on his 17-year-old self. He discovered his mother's secret, through (a post-modern touch) her emails. He's a computer buff, amiable, shy.
On the brink of troubled adulthood, he discovers his mother isn't just Mrs Shaw. She's someone else as well, someone lyrical, rapturous and besotted: she's Liza38 (the computer name Henry gave her), sneaking off to see her lover each week, deceiving her family.
The affair is imagined by the son, who constructs it from the messages he reads. He evokes for himself his mother naked, his mother joyful. The clothes she wore, the looks she threw, the way she would have smiled, the way she must have felt. The fact that the ostensible subject of the novel—a love affair—becomes refracted in this way does not matter. The real subject of Disobedience is apparently obedient Henry's relationship to his mother. He looks at her, voyeuristic, when she is unaware of his gaze. He tracks her life. He follows clues she doesn't know she is leaving. He torments himself.
The shadow subject of Disobedience is the tricky nature of truth and knowledge. We think we know a person but we know only the face we see. Like Henry's mother, we are the objects of other people's narcissistic inventions.
Hamilton is an emotional, full-throttle writer. Not for her understatement, reticence, simple lucidity. She describes and re-describes events. She seems more interested in emotions than creatures. She loves to dwell on the meaning of betrayal, or grief—on all the psychodramas of the human soul.
Vicky Hutchings (review date 12 March 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
SOURCE: Hutchings, Vicky. “Boy Talk.” New Statesman 130, no. 4528 (12 March 2001): 55-6.
[In the following review, Hutchings emphasizes the interplay between the narrator's teenaged and adult perspectives in Disobedience.]
Henry Shaw, the 17-year-old narrator of Jane Hamilton's Disobedience, is a modern-day Holden Caulfield. Using his mother's password (Liza38), he logs on to her computer and, like any teenager, is outraged to discover that she has “got mail”. “What was the old girl up to?” Why, she is having an affair with a man who lives in Wisconsin, no less.
But there's a potential problem. A Holden Caulfield would not be able to penetrate the torment and torture of his mum, Beth Shaw, and her lover, Richard Pollaco. Not without help, that is. What adolescent boy would understand why his mother talks endlessly about Pollaco at home? “She wouldn't bring him up if she was deceiving my father, if she was deceiving us. Would she? Not in front of us all. Not at dinner,” responds the prim, disapproving teenager. But then comes the mature afterthought: “She wanted to both hold his name in her mouth and say it. Say it again and again in our presence. Richard Pollaco. Pollaco, Pollaco, Richard.” And what regular guy would see why his mother keeps fondly remembering—even urging her son, daughter and husband to join her in remembering—favourite family moments? At this moment in her life? Yet he grasps it effortlessly—she is testing the weight of the family history to see what it is worth, to see if it is worth staying.
The 17-year-old Henry is cleverly overlaid by an older Henry, musing a decade later, with adult insight, on that turbulent year in the Shaw family. But both voices are important, because Henry the man would never remember the fiddling minutiae of family life with such clarity. In slipping back and forth between the two Henries, Hamilton never hits a wrong note.
But another pitfall is Henry's gender. He knows far too much about how women think. He even knows the shocking truth about why women join book clubs. But, by a further sleight of hand, Hamilton plays with our expectations of gender, so nothing surprises any more. The wife is having an affair while her husband shops, cooks, does the washing-up and waits for things to return to normal; the daughter, Elvira, a civil war re-enactor and part of a hardcore infantry unit, shaves her head to pass as a boy; and Henry lets his “unusually clean and shiny” hair fall down his back and wants to major in women's studies.
In the eccentric Shaw family, it is the absence of a television until Henry is 14—something that must surely amount to child abuse in the United States—that astonishes us most. Hamilton's off-the-wall characters, dry wit and perception into the seduction of assuming a new identity—in which Henry's mother can become “someone other than the usual and approved Beth Shaw”—make this a wonderful read.
William H. Pritchard (review date summer 2001)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4026
SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Fiction Chronicle.” Hudson Review 54, no. 2 (summer 2001): 313-19.
[In the following review, Pritchard examines a selection of recent novels, including Disobedience, arguing that Hamilton's realistic portrayal of a mother-son relationship is “a solid and credible achievement.”]
William Trevor's most recent collection of short fiction has met with universal praise, an unusual consensus even for such a distinguished writer.1 As one of the reviewers who praised it, I can't help wondering whether anything in addition to the clear merit of his work is responsible for the unanimity. It may have something to do with a related fact—that even more than with most writers, detailing the plot and describing the characters of a Trevor story is of no use in suggesting that story's feel, its texture. Mr. Trevor's sensibility is extraordinarily resistant to “ideas,” while the tone and manner of the pieces, divergent in their locations (Ireland, England) and mode (lyric, ironic, comic), everywhere conceals as much as it reveals the writer. V. S. Pritchett's stories provide an analogous instance of writing so poised and in control of itself, so un-polemical, that it is unlikely to provoke readers into critical dissent.
Trevor is able to imagine and inhabit with equal convincingness the minds of men and of women, from simple and limited minds to very sophisticated ones indeed. These assertions may be tested if an interested reader will read, in succession, what struck me as the collection's three best stories: “The Mourning” (about a young Irishman in London), “Against the Odds” (a Belfast woman on the move), and “Death of a Professor” (an Oxbridge don subjected to a hoax). These belong with the best of Trevor's shorter efforts, but there isn't a single one of the twelve stories in The Hill Bachelors that reveals less than writerly mastery.
Trevor is the best short fictionist in England, and I would make a similar claim for John Updike in this country.2 But consider the freedom and eagerness with which American reviewers have taken the measure of this writer's limitations, as demonstrated in his new collection. One need go no farther than Michiko Kakutani's judgments about the stories in her New York Times review: “superfluous and formulaic”; “desultory chronicles” that are “content to substitute charm for psychological detail, glibness for felt emotion.” Clearly Updike is a writer who is fair game for being patronized and seen through. Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel is unsatisfyingly titled after its perhaps least impressive story (“Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War”); the “sequel” is of course “Rabbit Remembered,” a novella of nearly 200 pages revisiting the folks in Brewer, Pennsylvania, ten years after its leading citizen Harry Angstrom departed this world. A shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, but the full remembrance is richer, fleshed out in detail, culminating in a fine comic moment at the new millennium New Year's Eve 1999, in which Rabbit's son Nelson, on the verge of messing things up yet once more, is instead allowed a measure of success, even reward. The revisiting and, to some extent, recuperation of Nelson, especially his discovery of his half-sister Annabelle, is perhaps the most affecting thing about “Rabbit Remembered.” Updike's decision not to leave him wholly at rest, forty years after he first came on the scene in Rabbit, Run, was a bit of inspiration.
But the revisitings in a number of stories from this volume are (contra Kakutani) not at all “superfluous”—or rather it is superfluity as style in Frost's sense of the word: “the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward.” Updike's subjects are those that have made the stuff of his fiction: his mother (“Cats”), his father (“My Father on the Verge of Disgrace”), his Pennsylvania boyhood (“Lunch Hour”), his life as imperfect father and husband in the fifties and sixties (“The Woman Who Got Away,” “How Was It Really?,” “New York Girl”). Who else is there—for us oldsters—to bring back what a school boiler room looked like in the 1940s:
In front of you, across a dizzying gap, were the immense coal-burning furnaces that warmed the school. You could see the near furnace take a great sliding gulp of pea coal from its hopper, and the mica viewing-portals shudder with orange incandescence, and bundles of asbestos-wrapped steam pipes snake across the ceiling.
In “How Was it Really?,” the narrator claims not to remember with any specificity or certainty just what happened in his years as married bringer-up of children. But, along with remembering Rabbit, Updike remembers everything else and makes his compelling style out of such superfluity.
Moving on to three novels of domesticity, parents and children, hometown views:3 Shelby Hearon is a veteran, and her fifteenth book is a happy fusion of humorous observation with the slings and arrows of family trials. Its first-person narrator, Ella, has always played distinct second fiddle to her glamorous older sister Terrell, beloved by their mother, while Ella, the outcast, escapes suffocation in East Texas gentility by eloping to Louisiana with a stud named Buddy. Buddy however does not last, and Ella and her child Robin (“Birdie”) keep a remote, epistolary distance from the folks back home. Then Terrell, married and mother of two boys, commences an affair and involves Ella in its concealment, pretending to visit her while visiting the guy instead. Terrell's sudden death in a plane crash precipitates Ella's eventual confrontation of her unsatisfactory relation to her mother, along with her dawning love for Terrell's husband. It sounds laborious told this way, but as conducted by Hearon's gently wised-up and also vulnerable voice, the narrative becomes a pleasure. Hearon is fully at home in the world of things, of roses, clothes, foods—as when Ella and Terrell go to a place in Texas called Central Market, “the Louvre of food”:
Feeling like a refugee, a charity case, I tagged along behind her through warehouse-size spaces heaped up with pyramids of potatoes, mountains of rare mushrooms, lettuces beyond imagining, imported cheese and butter from every corner of the earth, flavored milks thick as cream, loaves of crusty buttermilk bread, still warm scones fragrant as perfume. Meat rooms bejeweled with filets of beef and racks of lamb. Fish rooms studded with shellfish on ice, overlapped with roof tiles.
The plot-resolution of things is less interesting than the things as they occur along the way. But this is a highly agreeable book, saved by Shelby Hearon's command of irony and idiom from the clichés of sentimental romance.
Jane Hamilton is a writer new to me (this [Disobedience] is her fourth novel), and like Hearon has ready resources of humorous control as she tells the story—also in first person—of a seventeen-year-old boy, Henry Shaw's, coming of age in his final pre-college year. Henry lives with his family in Chicago; his father, Kevin, is a history teacher; his sister, Elvira, a fanatic Civil War buff; and his mother, Beth, a talented pianist who falls in love with a violinist named Richard Polloco. Henry discovers this by accessing his mother's e-mail letters to her friend and to Polloco confessing the situation. The discovery takes over his life, and from a later perspective he meditates intelligently about the implications of this knowledge, wondering why he didn't run away: “I could gaze all those years back and consider why I had stayed in Chicago, why I hadn't taken serious drugs or wrecked the Ming dynasty pottery in our neighbor's brownstone for attention.” He admits there were reasons to finish high school and that he lacked the financial means to bring off a flight:
The true reason, however, one I would not have acknowledged, was with me like new muscle, flexing, growing, becoming. By the force of my self, because I had to eat in the kitchen and sleep in my bed, because I moved through the house, my mother, I believed, had to stay in place.
This feeling animates the narrative as Hamilton gives us a version of a Holden Caulfield thrust into responsibility for his parents' future. The novel varies its landscape and characters: Henry goes north with his mother and sister to Polloco's cabin for a day visit (the excuse is music) and south to Shiloh for a disastrous re-enactment of the Civil War battle. His own erotic fortunes with a girlfriend from the East are also treated, though the book's real interest stays with the quite moving mix of feelings he expresses toward his mother. Like Shelby Hearon's, Hamilton's novel has trouble knowing how to end itself, but page by page it is a solid and credible achievement.
Amit Chaudhuri is a respected young writer, but on the basis of A New World I'm puzzled as to exactly why. It is a novel in which nothing happens of significance and in which the laid-back style of narration doesn't invite us to judgment and preference. A divorced professor of Economics, Jayojit Chatterjee, and his young son, Bonny, visit his parents in Calcutta for the summer. His mother feeds them rich food; Jayojit sleeps a lot and chats with his father (a retired Admiral); he goes out on errands, walks about Calcutta, observes people and places, and provides mild commentary on the passing parade. Every so often we flash back to his marriage and its cooling into divorce; these memories of life in California are again commented on in a reserved manner, with the narrowest range of tonal play. It is a novel everywhere “well written” in which nothing stands out—there is no temptation to quote from it by way of making an illustrative point. This is doubtless a strategy on Mr. Chaudhuri's part to resist easy poignance and even the slightest hint of the melodramatic. But in resisting melodrama he manages to resist drama as well, and has produced a book pretty much without inflection, its overall tone of observation an impassive one bordering on indifference. Or maybe Chaudhuri's gentle take on things, on the Bengali milieu, is too subtle for these Western ears. A novel to admire, perhaps, but not much to like.
Offhand I can't think of a novelist more unlike Amit Chauhuri than Julian Barnes, whose literary performance is as acrobatic and show-offy as Chauduri's is reserved.4 I first became aware of Mr. Barnes about thirty years ago when he did a weekly stint of television reviewing for The New Statesman, invariably producing some of the funniest copy going. So if you establish yourself as a smart aleck who can do excellent stand-up comedy, it would hardly do to exclude it from your fiction. Barnes's new novel is a follow-up to Talking It Over of ten years ago, which introduced us to the three principal players—Stuart, Gillian, and Oliver—who dominate the new book. Stuart and Gillian were married, then Oliver came along and took her away from him; now Stuart, having exiled himself to America, remarried and divorced, is back in town, rich, and eager to concern himself with Gillian's situation. Meanwhile Oliver, always excessive, is failing at his job (he is a writer of sorts), sinking into depression, but ever more extravagant in his verbal performances, as in this reflection apropos of his meeting Stuart again:
While quaffing and quenching with him, I did not, out of sheer tact, enquire too subcutaneously about his sojourn in the Land of the Free, but it did strike me that if the fluidity were sloshing around his calves like a Venetian flood-tide he might—to switch city-states—care to Medici some of the Moolah in my direction.
Indeed an antic disposition, yet it's possible for not only Stuart but the reader to weary of such fireworks.
As always, some of Barnes's contributions are very funny indeed. Here is Gillian, picking up on her previous remark that at night she and Oliver fall into bed and don't have sex:
When I said we fall into bed and don't have sex, you did know it was a joke, didn't you? I should say we have sex about as often as the national average, whatever that is. As often as you do, perhaps. And some of the time, it's national average sex. I'm sure you've had it yourself.
Perfect timing, and amusing also are the short, catchy chapter titles in which one of the talking heads addresses a “you” the reader is invited to become. “Would You Rather?” begins with Oliver:
You know that game called Would You Rather? As in, would you rather be buried up to your neck in wet mud for a week or compare all the recorded versions of the New World Symphony? Would you rather stroll down Oxford Street bollock-naked with a pineapple on your head or marry a member of the Royal Family?
These quotations will suggest the darkly playful (postmodern?) (deconstructive?) mode of the novel, in one ear and out the other but clever enough in the process to have convinced Knopf that a first printing of 40,000 copies was in order.
Since postmodern can mean anything one likes, I'll apply it to Don DeLillo's strange little book, as devoid of jokes as Julian Barnes is full of them.5 Or rather, call The Body Artist one continuous sick joke, beginning when the protagonist's husband offs himself in the space between chapters one and two. His wife Lauren, “the body artist,” hangs out by herself in a big rented house somewhere on “the coast” where she spends much time sanding her body with a pumice stone or improving it with emery boards, scissors, clippers, and creams. Then a very strange, wild boy is discovered in an upstairs room. Lauren calls him “Mr. Tuttle” because he reminds her of a high school science teacher of that name. “Mr. Tuttle” talks funny (“It is not able,” “Is when it comes,” “I am doing. This yes that. Say some words”), but the whole book talks funny:
It was the kind of day in which you forget words and drop things and wonder what it is you came into the room to get because you are standing here for a reason and you have to tell yourself it is just a question of sooner or later before you remember because you always remember once you are here.
Compare darkest Faulkner, from Light in August:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor …
DeLillo's idea, I guess, is that—in the narrative language about Mr. Tuttle—“There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearing.” It doesn't seem to me, at this late date, a very good project for the novel. I've always had reservations about DeLillo, had trouble finishing his books, but Underworld, his previous one, had enough imaginative substance to make the long trip worth it. Not so with The Body Artist.
Of course DeLillo is Serious, all art and a yard wide, while John le Carré and Barbara Vine (a.k.a. Ruth Rendell) are popular writers working in genres just a shade inferior.6 I fell away from le Carré after A Perfect Spy of fifteen years ago, so have not read his post-cold war fiction. But any page of the new novel shows how thoroughly professional and expert are his moves even if I can never quite follow the twists and turns of plot or keep up with the shifts in place. The Constant Gardener moves us from Kenya to Germany, from an island off the Italian coast to Saskatchewan and back. But wherever he deposits his hero, Justin Quayle, a British intelligence officer intent on bringing to book the murderers of his wife Tessa (she was killed, along with her black companion, while on an investigative mission in Kenya), the terrain, the landscape, is nameable and fully named. Quayle, attending Tessa's funeral, is firmly placed
on a lush plateau of tall grass and red mud and flowering ornamental trees, both sad and joyful, a couple of miles from the town center and just a short step from Kibera, one of Nairobi's larger slums, a vast brown smear of smoking tin houses overhung with a pall of sickly African dust, crammed into the Nairobi river valley with a hand's width between them. The population of Kibera is half a million and rising, and the valley is rich in deposits of sewage, plastic bags, colorful strands of old clothing, banana and orange peel, corncobs, and anything else the city cares to dump on it.
With such specification and amplification you can see, if not quite agree, that the novel must go on for 500 pages.
For all its expertise with landscape, its finely rendered infightings and treacheries among the British foreign service people, its excellent, detailed transcripts of interrogations and harassments, the book's moral center is a simple one. Reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, Rand Richards Cooper pointed to the ruinous—for the novel—quality of le Carré's outraged idealism, outrage at the spectacle of ruthless drug companies trying out an insufficiently tested anti-tuberculosis drug on impoverished Kenyans. (Le Carré's Author's Note at the end of the novel testifies to his hard-working research on the “Pharma” people.) But in the course of unmasking them, the novel's hero, Justin Quayle, becomes ever more the white knight, superb and incorruptible in his quest. Ambiguity, the stock-in-trade of earlier le Carré, gets short shrift in The Constant Gardener and not to the novel's advantage; still, you have to marvel at the executive skill with which this very ambitious novelist continues to get things done.
Fifteen years ago, with A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell published her first novel under the name of Barbara Vine. I am not sure how much considerations of sales and the novelist's embarrassing rate of high productivity had to do with the decision. (Joyce Carol Oates has done a similar doubling in this country.) Grasshopper is the tenth Barbara Vine novel to appear since 1986; this of course in addition to twelve Rendell novels, five of them featuring her detective Inspector Wexford, over the same period. My sense is that under the Vine imprint, Rendell gives herself more room to explore material not classifiable as or forced into the mystery-thriller-crime-novel genre. Grasshopper is an instance of such exploration: its protagonist is a woman, Clodagh Brown, currently an electrician in London, looking back on her life eleven years ago with a group of odd individuals in a Maida Vale flat presided over by a young man, courtesy of his wealthy parents. Silver's flat (his real name is Michael Silverman and Clodagh falls in love with him), is a fourth-floor walkup, which suits Clodagh since she's claustrophobic, uneasily living in a basement room down the street. She has come to London after a tragic accident to her boyfriend, sustained as the two young people were climbing a pylon in Suffolk (where Clodagh's parents live). Now she is enrolled in, but scarcely attending, a technical college while spending her time with Silver and his friends, playing grasshopper on the roofs of London. Barbara Vine's really astonishing achievement in the book is to turn those nighttime rooftop adventures into a beautiful landscape of the imagination:
We were looking across the backs of houses, the fronts of houses, streets between, the dark tops of leafy trees and their gold-lit trunks, gardens of gloomy evergreens and pale shrubs, the faces of flowers white and shimmering, stone walls and stone tubs and urns, statuary, and in one small enclave a dark shining pool in which golden fish darted.
The topographical and architectural sweep of the city is handsomely evoked:
London rolled away below us, to the Heath and Highgate, the towers of Somers Town and Euston, the ribbon streets of Edgware, and, like a low pyramid, Harrow-on-the-Hill. Regent's Park lay like pastoral acres of countryside or the royal hunting ground it once was, its lake a broken piece of mirror.
At 400 closely-packed pages, Grasshopper occasionally tests a reader's patience, but in its old-fashioned way seems to me to have more of what Henry James called “felt life” than is to be found in the artier Julian Barnes or Don DeLillo.
At the solid age of seventy-five, Gore Vidal has written finis to his seven-volume tour of American history.7 His effort has been—in words from this book—on behalf of “an odd sort of nation whose true history might prove to be uncommonly interesting if one were ever able to excavate it from under so many other long lost nations.” The period treated is 1940-1955, with a final coda set in 2000; there is a touch of irony in the title, yet since these have been Mr. Vidal's years they are treated not without affection, to put it mildly. As in its predecessors, characters in The Golden Age are divided between fictional and “real” ones, the strategy being to let the former interpret and speculate about the latter. It's hard to care much about the fictional ones on their own (though there are continuities with the previous Empire), and Vidal's serviceable prose doesn't do anything to give them poetic or metaphoric life. But the descriptions of public figures and events are terrific: “the round-faced Hoover with his Humpty Dumpty starched collar”; “Wilkie … dark curly hair cut in farm-boy style, one lock carefully trained to fall over his right eyebrow.” Vidal was there in imagination—and indeed sometimes in fact—at the party conventions of 1940, 1944, at the election of 1948. He must have pressed his nose more than once to the window of The Brass Rail restaurant (7th Avenue and Times Square), “a feeding ground for carnivores … passersby could see chefs at work, slicing joints of beef, ham, turkey.” And readers of this journal will be interested to note that one of the fictional characters helped to found The Hudson Review, an “elegant literary quarterly” that another character finds “serious if a bit too strong on what was currently being called the New Criticism.” The novel's pages are full of artistic people and places—Paul Robeson, the Chelsea Hotel, Dawn Powell, Parker Tyler, Peggy Guggenheim, and many others including a flattering cameo appearance by the author himself (“Gore, Peter noticed with some pain, was still lean while he himself had never been heavier or hungrier”) who gets off some Vidal-like one-liners.
He once said in an interview that the Golden Age in American history was the postwar 1946 decade (but how does Joe McCarthy fit in?) and that we proceeded to blow this great opportunity. In the novel's final, retrospective chapter a character looks ahead to the horrors of air travel in the twenty-first century as we find ourselves “trapped in a technological Calcutta”:
Crowded air terminals whose vast, confusing distances must be negotiated on foot by the anxious traveler who moves from delay to cancellation to, at the bitter end, lost baggage after a harrowing flight in a narrow ill-maintained metal cylinder, breathing virus-laden recycled air, all the while wondering anxiously if he has boarded one of the now too frequent carriers doomed to be hurled from sky to earth as overworked pilot loses his bearings, or a structural fault, known but unattended to, causes a fiery wire in the fuselage to make exciting contact with fuel supply.
Still, the novel's final word is “hope,” its perspective a disillusioned, but somehow genial, even godlike, one. I can't think of a better way to explore our American past than to hole up with Gore Vidal's seven novels, from Burr through The Golden Age. Take careful notes.
The Hill Bachelors, by William Trevor. Viking. ＄22.95.
Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf. ＄25.00.
Ella in Bloom, by Shelby Hearon. Alfred A. Knopf. ＄23.00. Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton. Doubleday ＄24.95. A New World, by Amit Chaudhuri. Alfred A. Knopf. ＄22.00.
Love, Etc., by Julian Barnes. Alfred A Knopf. ＄23.00.
The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo. Scribner. ＄22.00.
The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré. Scribner. ＄28.00. Grasshopper, by Barbara Vine. Harmony Books. ＄25.00.
The Golden Age, by Gore Vidal. Doubleday. ＄27.50.