Born 1957, Oak Park, Illinois
Daughter of Allen B. and Ruth Hubert Hamilton; married Robert Willard, 1982; children: two.
Jane Hamilton writes of small-town, Midwestern Americans who face extraordinary challenges. While her three novels are set in the sort of environment where Hamilton was raised and still lives—rural hamlets in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota—her characters lead lives very different from her own, which she describes as "ordinary." Despite these divergent paths, Hamilton has said in interviews that she can relate to her characters emotionally, particularly their feelings of alienation.
After graduating in 1979 with a B.A. from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Hamilton planned to move to New York for a position with a publishing house. On the way, she took a job at a Wisconsin apple orchard, where she decided to remain, eventually marrying one of the business's owners. In 1982 she began writing, winning grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Art Board and submitting autobiographical short stories to publications such as Harper's.
Hamilton's first novel, The Book of Ruth (1989), won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award from the PEN American Center (Hamilton and Hemingway share the same birthplace, Oak Park, Illinois.) The book (published in England under the title The Frogs Are Still Singing) focuses on Ruth, a resilient woman who is emotionally abused by her husband, Ruby, and his domineering, live-in mother. The story and its violent and inevitable conclusion were inspired by a newspaper article about a man in a town near Hamilton's who murdered his mother-in-law. In its first seven years, The Book of Ruth sold steadily, accruing sales of 75,000 copies. Sales jumped to over a million, however, when the book became the third selection of Oprah Winfrey's televised "Book Club."
A Map of the World (1994), Hamilton's second novel, is about Alice and Howard, a married couple who move to a rural community to follow Howard's dream of becoming a dairy farmer. The pair are viewed as outsiders, a perception compounded by the fact that they once entertained a dreadlocked African American houseguest. When a friend's young child drowns under Alice's watch and another subsequently accuses Alice of sexual abuse at the elementary school where she is a nurse, the couple's lives change drastically and Alice ends up in jail.
A Map of the World—like The Book of Ruth, was inspired by real-life events, including a documentary about a couple falsely accused of child abuse and a neighborhood child who drowned in his family swimming pool. The novel garnered somewhat mixed reviews, although it was praised for its use of telling details, perceptive emotional currents, innovative manipulation of point of view, and moving and involving story. "This highly observant author articulates what is poetic in children, in the natural world, and in the rigors of farm life," stated a review in the New Yorker. "But there are mixed signals and blurs in her depiction of character which finally rob this otherwise lovely story of its full impact." John Skow, reviewing the book for Time, added, "This would be soap opera if the author were not unusually good at transforming acute, intuitive perceptions into sentences."
Hamilton's third book, The Short History of a Prince (1998), is about a 1970s suburban Chicago teenager who loves ballet but lacks talent. He is also dealing with his own homosexuality and his brother's battle with terminal cancer. The book's second section jumps to the 1990s, when the protagonist, now HIV-positive, confronts regrets over how he spent his youth. He returns from New York to a town near his family's summer home to teach high school and a surprise ending involves his redemption.
Though known for her strong female characters, Hamilton was applauded for her depiction of a gay man. As Robert Plunket wrote in The Advocate, a publication written for a gay and lesbian audience, "It is quite a surprise to discover that in her new novel, The Short History of a Prince, Jane Hamilton paints a very credible and sympathetic portrait of not just a man but a gay man." As with her previous characters, Hamilton was complimented for her compassion and her use of believable detail to describe her characters and their lives. "Hamilton has an amazing way with the varieties of human pain," wrote Laura Shapiro in Newsweek. "Her characters live with ordinary and sometimes extraordinary torment, yet her writing remains buoyant and her sensibility full of light."
CA 147 (1995).
Advocate (26 May 1998). English Journal (Sept. 1996). LJ (15 Sept. 1997). Newsweek (13 Apr. 1998). New Yorker (15 Aug. 1994). NYTBR (26 Apr. 1998). People (30 May 1994). PW (2 Feb. 1998). Time (27 June 1994). Writer's Digest (Oct. 1990).