Hamilton, Jane 1957-
HAMILTON, Jane 1957-
PERSONAL: Born July 13, 1957, in Oak Park, IL; daughter of Allen B. and Ruth (Hubert) Hamilton; married Robert Willard (an orchard owner), June, 1982; children: two. Education: Carleton College, B.A., 1979.
ADDRESSES: Home—Rochester, WI. Agent—c/o Doubleday Publishers, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
CAREER: Apple farmer, beginning c. 1979; freelance author, 1982—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award from PEN American Center, 1989, for The Book of Ruth; Publishers Weekly Best Book citation, Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and Orange Prize shortlist, all 1998, all for The Short History of a Prince.
The Book of Ruth (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1988, published as The Frogs Are Still Singing, Collins (London, England), 1989.
A Map of the World (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
The Short History of a Prince, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Disobedience (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of essays and reviews for periodicals and Web sites.
ADAPTATIONS: A Map of the World was adapted as an audiobook, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1995, and produced as a film, 2000. The Book of Ruth was adapted as a film for CBS-TV, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Jane Hamilton has spent most of her life in small towns in the Midwest. She was born in 1957 in Oak Park, Illinois—a birthplace she shares with writers Ernest Hemingway and Carol Shields. Hamilton's mother and grandmother were also writers, and, as Hamilton told Publishers Weekly contributor Sybil Steinberg, "I just assumed that if you were a girl-child you were supposed to grow up and write." After Hamilton graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota, she declined a position with a New York City publishing firm to work in an apple orchard in Wisconsin, and eventually married one of the orchard's owners. However, Hamilton has followed in her family tradition and put her experiences with rural, smalltown living into critically acclaimed novels that include The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World.
Though Hamilton preserves the atmosphere of her native Midwest in her fiction, her stories are not autobiographical. Interviewed by Michael Schumacher for Writer's Digest, Hamilton confided: "My mother was horrified when she read [The Book of Ruth] . . . because she saw its having no relation to my life. She wondered how 'Sweet Jane' could come up with the squalid, squalid people." The "squalid people" Hamilton referred to include her protagonist and narrator, Ruth, who manages to find hope despite a loveless childhood and abandonment by her father; Ruth's mother, May, who is embittered by the loss of her first husband in World War II and who marries Ruth's father for reasons other than love; and Ruby, an emotionally disturbed man whom Ruth marries and brings to live in May's small house with disastrous results. The novel was inspired by a 1983 news story that profiled several Wisconsin men who had killed their mothers-in-law. As Hamilton told Schumacher, "I wanted to see if I could write about other people besides myself." Previously, her efforts at fiction fell into the category of autobiographical short stories.
The Book of Ruth was well received by critics. Richard Eder, reviewing the novel in the Los Angeles Times, compared its author to nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens, and observed: "There is no perspective, no breathing space between Ruth and her pain; between Ruth and those she lives among, each of whom is drawn in harsh and sometimes grotesque contrasts of dark and light." Eder further commented that "the real achievement of this first novel is not so much the blackness as the suggestion of resilience." Jay Parini, who hailed the work in the Times Literary Supplement by its British title of The Frogs Are Still Singing, termed Hamilton's debut "a well drawn, often tender portrait of a young woman caught in a situation of bleak cultural and material deprivation." Even more extreme in her praise was Suzanne Berne in Belles Lettres, who applauded what she felt to be "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." Judith Paterson in the Washington Post Book World lauded The Book of Ruth as "passionate and adroit" and concluded that it "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." Despite critical praise, The Book of Ruth did not draw wide attention until it chosen, seven years after publication, for talk-show host Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. In 2004, The Bookof Ruth was produced as a made-for-television movie starring Christine Lahti, Nicholle Tom, and Evan Jones.
In Hamilton's 1994 effort, A Map of the World, she introduces protagonists Alice and Howard, a couple who have moved to a farming community in order to fulfill Howard's dream of being a dairy farmer. After six years' residence, they are still viewed by their neighbors as outsiders, not just because of their relative newness but for reasons including the fact that they once had an African American sporting dread-locks as a houseguest. As Bill Kent stated in the New York Times Book Review, "after just a few pages . . . we know Alice Goodwin is going to get it, bad." Alice manages to make one good friend, Theresa; unfortunately she falls into a daydream while watching Theresa's daughters, and the youngest one falls into their pond and drowns. Though Theresa forgives Alice, this tragedy is only the beginning of a chain of events that leads to Alice serving a contemplative term in prison. After Alice is taken away by the police, Howard takes his turn at narrating the novel, but in the final third we are back with Alice, who tells the reader what she learns in jail.
New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani commented that A Map of the World "aspires to combine a melodramatic soap-opera plot with highly tuned literary writing, the pacing of a thriller with the psychological detail of a Bildungsroman." Although Kakutani felt that the resulting novel is "something of a mixed bag," she praised "the strengths of Ms. Hamilton's writing: her eye for the emotional detail, her expert manipulation of point of view, her ability to show us Alice's fears and delusions, her need for penance and her yearning for redemption." Similarly, John Skow in Time noted that A Map of the World "would be soap opera if the author were not unusually good at transforming acute, intuitive perceptions into sentences." He finished by calling the book "very good stuff by a novelist whose momentum seems unstoppable." Kent pointed out in the New York Times Book Review that "when it's working well, it lays out an exciting human drama against a setting so vividly realized that you can almost smell the loamy soil." Because of its rural setting, John Blades in the Chicago Tribune compared A Map of the World favorably with Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, and Laura Shapiro, discussing the book's horrific events in Newsweek, asserted that "there's nothing garish or manipulative about Hamilton's approach . . . . she is exploring them, not exploiting them. Her tone is beautifully controlled, her style calm and lucid." Shapiro concluded that with A Map of the World, Hamilton "proves . . . that she is one of our best." A Map of the World was adapted as a film starring Sigourney Weaver in 2000.
Hamilton's novel The Short History of a Prince was described by a Maclean's reviewer as "a relatively placid tale" compared with the more blatantly painful themes in the first two novels. The novel focuses on ex-dancer Walter McCloud during his move from Manhattan to Wisconsin, where he takes a job as a high-school teacher. "The narrative alternates between the adult Walter—witty, eccentric and emotionally adrift—to an adolescent Walter who is passionate about ballet and desperately in love with a male classmate," explained the Maclean's critic, adding that, "While the novel lacks the momentum of her earlier books, Hamilton's consummate skill makes Walter affecting and memorable." Newsweek's Laura Shapiro, dubbing the book "gentle and reflective," noted that Hamilton's "characters live with ordinary and sometimes extraordinary torment, yet her writing remains buoyant and her sensibility full of light." Shapiro praised in particular Hamilton's portrayal of her gay protagonist as "subtle, moving and utterly convincing." According to Sybil Steinberg in Publishers Weekly, Walter's "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."
Nancy Pearl in the Seattle Times noted that The Short History of a Prince "is not without its flaws. As she did in A Map of the World, Hamilton insists on including too many unnecessary subplots, and it sometimes feels as though the book is going to sink under the weight of all that's happening." Ultimately, however, Pearl added that "Hamilton creates stories that are almost impossible to set aside," and Lucy Ferriss in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the novel as "far more nuanced and powerful" than Hamilton's earlier fiction and a book "that wades into waters that are even more treacherous for literary fiction."
Disobedience looks back at the inner life of an adolescent boy from a perspective of a decade. Seventeen-year-old Henry Shaw sets up an e-mail account for his mother, Beth, only to find accidentally that she is using it to communicate with a lover. Rather than backing away, Henry begins to eavesdrop on his mother's secret life. Lancet contributor Kirstie Archer found that "as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Henry's account of his father, and perhaps of the whole story, is unreliable. And here we find the underlying subject of the novel: the nature of truth and authenticity. How much of our perception of other people is the truth, and how much is an invention to suit our own needs?" Henry's sister Elvira also struggles with issues of authenticity when she prefers to be a boy in the Civil War re-enactments she and her father share an interest in. Revelation and exposure bring crises to the family along with enlightenment.
According to Liza Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly, while "Elvira is a pip, a fabulous creation," Disobedience is Henry's story. "Henry's voice is exactly right: he's a thoughtful, intelligent boy whose hormones are sending him confusing messages, and whose tendency is to mock both parents with typical teen sardonic humor," added a Publishers Weekly critic. Guardian critic Julie Myerson was not so taken with Disobedience, and found Henry's obsession with his mother's affair "just too weird and worrying. You know it, I know it, even he . . . is beginning to know it. But it's just not clear whether the author knows it. There is nothing wrong with splattering a novel with all this Oedipal ooze if the author is willing to get in there, rummage around and explore it. But Hamilton seems bafflingly bent on passing her tale off as a mere insightful little vignette of teenage sensitivity and familial betrayal." However, the Publishers Weekly critic concluded: "Hamilton manages to grant psychological validity to all the members of this ordinary-seeming but emotionally distracted family" with "her tender evocation of both human fallibility and our ability to recover from heartbreaking choices."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 1998, p. E5; October 22, 2000, p. D4.
Austin American-Statesman, March 29, 1998, p.D6; March 24, 2000, p. E1; October 15, 2000, p. L6.
Belles Lettres, fall, 1988, p. 13.
Bloomsbury Review, March-April, 1995, p. 15.
Book, November-December, 2000, interview with Hamilton.
Booklist, June 1, 1994, p. 1771; October 15, 1997, p. 424; January 1, 1998, p. 743; January 1, 1999, p. 778; August 2000, p. 2074; June 1, 2001, p. 1908.
Boston Herald, October 27, 2000, p. 40.
Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1994, sec. 5, p. 2.
Christian Century, May 24, 1995, p. 567.
Christian Science Monitor, June 3, 1994, p. 13; November 9, 2000, p. 18.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 17, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, June 10, 1994, p. 61; March 21, 1997, p. 65; March 27, 1998, p. 62; October 20, 2000, p. 70.
Guardian (London, England), April 7, 2001, p. 10.
Independent (London, England), February 10, 1996, p. 11; August 1, 1998, p. 12.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), February 4, 2001, p. 48.
Lancet, March 24, 2001, p. 968.
Library Journal, November 1, 1988, p. 109; May 15, 1994, p. 99; February 1, 1998, p. 110; May 15, 1998, p. 134; September 15, 2000, p. 112; February 1, 2001, p. 144.
Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1988, section 5, p. 12; January 5, 1994, p. 3; October 15, 2000, p. 11.
Maclean's, June 22, 1998, p. 48; January 8, 2001, p. 45.
Midamerica, 2000, p. 119.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 14, 2000, p. 3E; October 8, 2000, p. 06.
Newsweek, June 13, 1994, p. 55; April 13, 1998, p. 76.
New Yorker, August 15, 1994, p. 78. New York Times, June 28, 1994, p. C19; December 3, 1999, pp. B24, E24; October 19, 2000, pp. B9, E9; April 30, 2004, Virginia Heffernan, review of The Book of Ruth (TV adaptation).
New York Times Book Review, March 12, 1989, p. 22; July 17, 1994, p. 26; April 26, 1998, p. 22; November 19, 2000, p. 9; July 22, 2001, p. 28.
NWSA Journal, spring, 1999, p. 21.
Observer (London, England), February 11, 2001, p. 15.
People, May 30, 1994, p. 30; April 6, 1998, p. 31; November 20, 2000, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1988, p. 62; April 4, 1994, p. 57; December 22, 1997, p. 36; February 2, 1998, p. 68; April 6, 1998, p. 34; February 7, 2000, p. 12; August 7, 2000, p. 72.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 5, 1998, Lucy Ferriss, review of A Map of the World, p. D6.
Variety, May 20, 1987, p. 102; July 15, 1987, p. 14; June 15, 1988, p. 13; April 19, 1989, p. 24; May 10, 1989, p. 27; February 7, 1990, p. 34.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 1998, p. 4.
School Library Journal, February 2001, p. 143.
Seattle Times, April 12, 1998, p. M2; March 3, 2000, p. F4; October 15, 2000, p. M1.
Time, June 27, 1994, p. 75.
Times Literary Supplement, November 24, 1989, p. 1313; January 20, 1995, p. 20.
U.S. Catholic, May 1997, p. 46.
U.S. News and World Report, June 13, 1994, p. 82.
Wall Street Journal, January 13, 1989, pp. A9, A10; July 5, 1994, pp. A8, A10; October 20, 2000, p. W10.
Washington Post, October 19, 2000, p. C02.
Washington Post Book World, February 5, 1989, p. 6; May 29, 1994, p. 5.
Writer's Digest, October, 1990, pp. 28-29.
BookReporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (March 25, 2004), review of Disobedience.
OnMilwaukee,http://www.onmilwaukee.com/ (October 16, 2000), interview with Hamilton.*