The Book of Ruth, 1988 (pb. in England as The Frogs Are Still Singing, 1989)
A Map of the World, 1994
The Short History of a Prince, 1998
Jane Hamilton was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the hometown of Ernest Hemingway, whom she thought of as an “icky man” who was dead wrong when he called the suburb “a place of narrow minds and wide lawns.” Hamilton found Oak Park both liberal and livable. She grew up in a family that opposed the Vietnam War and loved the arts and literature. She became familiar with Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo through her father’s recitations. As a youngster, she studied ballet, listened to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, and read avidly. She read not so much to find out “how people fell in love . . . but how . . . they came together.” She was searching for instructions for life. In later years she became more enamored of the craft, of the “strong or lyrical or surprising sentence.” It was natural for her to become a writer. Her grandmother contributed to a feminist newspaper and produced several unpublished novel manuscripts. Her mother, Ruth Hulbert Hamilton, composed a poem for her titled “A Song for a Fifth Child” that was published in Ladies’ Home Journal, it became a popular nursery rhyme for handstitched samplers.
Hamilton graduated with a B.A. in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1979, equipped, as she noted, “to be a waitress or wait until further notice.” Failing to gain acceptance in any of the graduate programs to which she applied, she headed for New York with the promise of a job in the Children’s Division at Dell Publishing. Because she needed money for setting up her envisioned life as a struggling artist in the Village, she stopped off to help a friend with the apple harvest at a farm in Rochester, Wisconsin. Her plan was to stay for a week, but the week turned into two and eventually led to her life as a farmer, wife, mother, and writer in this relatively isolated community in the southeastern part of the state. Her love of the land was equaled only by her love for her friend’s cousin, Robert Willard, part owner of the orchard. From the moment she saw him, she recognized in him a close resemblance to the hero of the novel she was reading, the beautiful Welsh boy in Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939), and the prospect of a full-time writing career in a big-city environment lost its attraction. She later observed that she would not have fared well in that setting, as the pressures of day-to-day living would have been distracting. She found peaceful farm life perfectly suited to her writing style. She said, “I love the orchard because it [makes me] a part of a natural rhythm that most of us don’t have any more.” She said that she could write anywhere, provided that she was afforded quiet.
As a newcomer in this small, close-knit community, she felt like an “anthropologist in a foreign country.” Her urban sensibilities made her somewhat suspect, certainly an outsider, and she did not gain true acceptance until starting a family and becoming president of the public library board. She worked the farm in the harvest season and wrote during the slower winter months in her upstairs office overlooking gentle hills, fruit trees, and grazing sheep. With the birth of her first child, she cut back on farming, helping her husband only in emergencies, though often overseeing their barn sales of lamb, wool, cider, apples, and pears and sometimes selling apples at the farmers’ market in Madison. She continued to write, autobiographical short stories at first, though always working around her children’s schedules and finally recognizing the novel as her métier.
Hamilton’s fiction does not come full-blown from her imagination. It is the result of hard work, a labored writing, rewriting, and rewriting. She gauges her success on the reactions of her husband, to whom she reads aloud. If he responds as she would hope a reader would, she knows that she may have produced something good. Her works are always works in progress until the day they are published, and even then she regrets not having explored a given character in greater depth or having found a more felicitous way of expressing a thought.
All of Hamilton’s novels are based on real events or on personal reality. The first major work, The Book of Ruth, grew from her feelings of being isolated and lonely, an outsider. A major plot detail was based on a news account concerning a man’s murder of his mother-in-law. As the title character points out, there is a “kernel of meanness in people’s hearts.” The book was rejected numerous times, taking four years to see print. It earned the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel and the Banta Award for literary achievement by a Wisconsin author but did not gain lasting fame until talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selected it seven years later as her third offering in her book club.
In preparing for her next novel, A Map of the World, Hamilton suffered from a malady common with second books: writer’s block. The first part of the narrative was easy, recounting an incident in which her son’s nursery school friend died in the family swimming pool. She was stymied at that point, however, struggling with how the main character, Alice, was going to live with the horror that had resulted from a few minutes’ inattention to a visiting child. She wrote the equivalent of three novels, each with a different spin, each unsatisfactory. It was not until she read news reports on school and child day care abuses that she developed the idea of the implications of being wrongly accused of impropriety, of how a small community could turn against an outsider and cause irreparable damage.
The third novel, The Short History of a Prince, gave her a chance to assume a male voice and to explore gender identity. Her main character is a homosexual who is forced to abandon his dream of being a great ballet star because he lacks talent. Again, Hamilton relied upon real life experience. She, too, knew what it was to have a dream that could not be realized. She had at one time had to forgo dance because of an injury that was destroying her foot’s bone structure. She had also been forced to put her literary aspirations on hold when she could not join a writing program and when she opted for marriage over a career. This novel was the 1998 winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction and was short-listed for Britain’s Orange Prize.
The fourth book, Disobedience, also went through numerous reincarnations. In her attempts to reach the correct “voice” for each of her characters, she read her prose aloud to herself, then to her husband, and then, most successfully, into a tape recorder so that she could listen while driving. She wanted to see if she had captured the essence of her characters in their language. Hearing them speak gave her insight into whether what they said was true to their natures and whether change was needed. She would drive along, jotting down notes, once resorting to using as a writing tablet a clean diaper she kept in the car.
There is an interrelatedness among her books, with their small-town settings, with characters who need to call on inner reserves. All reflect her affinity with society’s outcasts and interest in how people handle and sometimes overcome adversity. Though her books are not autobiographical, they depend on the life she has lived and her experiences with the alienation that results from being perceived as different.
She deals in juxtapositions, the grandness of the ordinary, joy in the midst of despair, hope where there is none, and the past intertwined with the present. She gives nobility to everyday life, as her characters seek out small pleasures. All of her works deal with family, friendship, and community, with all the pain, hardship, deprivation, loss, and cruelty that is inherent in living. Her story lines would be despairing if not for her ability to inject them with humor, with kindnesses, with gifts of insight and understanding. Her tales of sexual confusion do not focus on gender, her tales of death go beyond the actual event to greater truths; alienation and loneliness give way to acceptance of the condition and a hope for forgiveness and redemption. Hamilton’s life, her craft, and her attitude toward her position in society all mesh. She does not want the glamor that can subvert writing. She balances quiet times in the orchard with trips to large cities and foreign countries on book tours. Her stories speak to readers because she is a person, a wife, a mother, a farmer, and a writer.