The Short History of a Prince

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Imagery of the mythic garden in the opening paragraph of THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE hints at many motifs that adumbrate Jane Hamilton’s understated novel: loss of innocence; exile from—and longing to return to—home; the coming of death. The sin that invades this Midwestern garden, however, is not, as it had been for earlier American Edens, slavery or greed, but rather intolerance over sexual difference. Hamilton alternates between two time frames: the early 1970’s, when her protagonist, Walter McCloud, is fifteen, and the mid-1990’s. If the adolescent boy negotiates knowledge of sexuality and death, the older Walter endures secrecy and closeting, loneliness over the loss of friends to AIDS, and the homophobia of a bigoted community where he teaches high school. He must fight for visibility, insisting “I am among you” as he helps support gay and lesbian students in ways he never had been.

Central to Walter is his love of music—opera and ballet—fostered by an aunt who recognized in him a kindred spirit. As a teenager, he takes ballet lessons with his closest friends, Mitch and Susan. While they are selected to perform minor roles in the city’s THE NUTCRACKER holiday extravaganza, he is relegated to a suburban ballet—yet he gets to dance the Prince. Later, he underscores the potentially transgressive nature of ballet by donning the costume of a cygnet from SWAN LAKE and dancing the good Odette, spurned by the Prince for the evil Odile. Just as ballet once helped order a confused life, what later sustains Walter is ownership of the family’s ancestral home—site of two celebrations that frame the novel and the place his dead brother’s ashes are still kept. Far from writing a dance of death, Hamilton has crafted a ballet of life—but one that refuses to deny the pain associated with being ostracized as different.

Sources for Further Study

The Advocate. May 26, 1998, p. 83.

Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 743.

Chicago. XLVII, April, 1998, p. 27.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 1, 1998, p. 110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 29, 1998, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 26, 1998, p. 22.

Newsweek. CXXXI, April 13, 1998, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, p. 68.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, May 31, 1998, p. 7.

Women’s Review of Books. XV, June, 1998, p. 6.