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.