(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Jane Hamilton’s elegiac and moving second novel, A Map of the World, has all the makings of a latter-day tragedy: a child drowned, an innocent woman jailed, the dissolution of a marriage, the loss of a home and way of life, the unraveling of a family. In less capable hands such material could only read as maudlin, exploitive, even operatic—the storyline for a daytime drama. Yet Jane Hamilton is not merely a capable writer; she is a startlingly gifted one. In A Map of the World Hamilton, whose first novel,The Book of Ruth, won the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, manages to transform, indeed transcend her subject matter and in the process weave a story that is as much about rebirth as it is about death, as much about forgiveness as it is about despair and as much about love’s healing qualities as it is about all of its attendant treacheries. WithA Map of the World Hamilton has created exactly that: a guide for life in this cruel and beautiful universe—simple, stark, and true.

Like all worthy tragedies, Hamilton’s tale charts a fall from grace and innocence that could not have happened to nicer people. The Goodwin family is good. Alice, Howard, and their young daughters, Emma and Claire, are outsiders in the small Wisconsin farming community of Prairie Center, in which they settled six years before to raise dairy cows and live away from the encroaching threat of subdivisions, strip malls, and freeways. Howard, devoted father, husband, and farmer, loves his family and his hard-won (and debt-ridden) piece of land with equal determination. Alice, sensitive and dreamy wife and mother, works as a nurse at Blackwell Elementary School during the school year and does her best to keep her house and daughters together in the summers. That she is not altogether comfortable with farm life and is given over to fits of doubt about their return to the land makes the reader identify with her. Alice is as real as she is realistic, even when wringing truth from “the stink and mess, the frenetic dullness of farming, our marriage, the tedium of work and love.” “All of it,” she says, “was my savior.”

Yet this simple if slightly imperfect way of life is not meant to be. Told from the distance of a year’s remove in prose that is magnificently lucid, the tragedies that befall Alice Goodwin and her family unfold with an exquisite and painful certitude. Readers know from the very first page that Alice will suffer: “I opened my eyes on a Monday morning in June last summer and I heard, somewhere far off, a siren belting out calamity. It was the last time I would listen so simply to a sound that could mean both disaster and pursuit.” This first disaster, the one that sets off the tragic chain of events that all but destroys Alice and her family, is the sudden accidental drowning of Alice’s best friend’s daughter, who is entrusted to Alice’s care.

It is the very ordinary nature of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy itself that makes Hamilton’s story, and Alice’s, such a compelling and believable one. Alice is baby-sitting her friend Theresa’s two daughters and her own two girls one hot summer morning. Howard is working outside in the barn. While searching through a drawer to find her bathing suit so that she can take the girls swimming in the pond that lies on the farm property, Alice pauses to reminisce for a few short moments with a drawing she made as a child (the title’s map of the world), time enough for Theresa’s daughter Lizzy to toddle away from the house and into the pond. When Alice comes downstairs a few minutes later and discovers that Lizzy is missing, Hamilton makes the reader inhabit every single second of the subsequent terror and disbelief that Alice must endure. Time moves with the slow-motion pacing of all accidental horrors—the long seconds of understanding and lucidity just before a car crash, before the world breaks open wide.

I pulled her up and slung her over my shoulder, tripping through the water, screaming then, screaming for help. I didn’t know how to make enough noise, to be heard. I was shrieking with so much force I felt as if I might split, and yet all the world was placid, still. The leaves in the trees hung limp like palsied hands. I lay Lizzy on her back, that was right, and then I tilted her chin and put my ear to her cold chest, and tried to listen.

What happens next would test the faith of a saint, but at no time does Hamilton overplay the dark fates awaiting her characters. While still deeply grieving for her unwitting role in Lizzy’s drowning, a few days after the accident occurs Alice is arrested and charged with several counts of sexual abuse in a case brought by one of the students in the school where she works as a...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)