Speaking Volumes: Author Jane Hamilton deserves attention

Special to the HeraldJuly 13, 2014 

Born on July 13, 1957, novelist Jane Hamilton may not be as familiar to readers as she deserves to be. Compassion, guilt, regret, family relationships, the demands and constraints of gender and sexuality, and the consequences of the choices we make in life, are some of the main themes she addresses in her novels. Her fiction is also lyrically written, with sharply delineated characterizations, and is laced with humor. Both of her first two novels, "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World" became Oprah Book Club selections.

Set in a small town in Illinois, "The Book of Ruth" is a bittersweet novel told in the first person by Ruth Grey, a woman with few resources and minimal family support. She seems to be a young woman with little chance for future happiness. Her widowed mother, May, saves her meager affection for Ruth's brother Matt, a math prodigy. Ruth becomes involved with and eventually marries Ruby, an emotionally disturbed man. The book, which ends on a hopeful note, has been called "a stunning testament to the human capacity for mercy, compassion and love."

"A Map of the World" is the heartbreaking novel of Howard and Alice Goodwin who, with their two young daughters, buy a dairy farm in a small Wisconsin town where they are mostly shunned as "hippies" by the community. When a young neighbor's child accidently drowns in their pond while Alice is babysitting them, the tragedy becomes the catalyst for the family's implosion. Shortly after, Alice faces an unfounded charge of child molestation against her resulting in her arrest, jailing, and a courtroom trial. The novel is a deeply affecting read with its compelling themes of guilt, surviving adversity and the power of forgiveness.

Hamilton's third novel, "The Short History of a Prince" is the story of Walter McCloud, a young gay man who has the desire to become a ballet dancer, but not enough talent to become successful. His two friends, Susan and Mitch, have already surpassed him artistically, and both he and Susan are in love with Mitch! In the meantime, his older brother, Daniel, is dying from cancer. Graced with lyrical prose, superb characterization, and the exploration of what it means to

be human in understanding ourselves and others, this poignant novel is well worth reading.

"When Madeline was Young" is an unusual family saga of the Maciver family. When a bike accident in 1943 leaves newlywed Madeline with the mental capabilities of a six year old, her husband eventually remarries but he and his new wife continue to care for Madeline in their own home, treating her like a daughter. Narrated by Mac, their son, who later learns from his cousin Buddy that his "sister" Madeline was his father's first wife, the novel examines how this tragedy affects family dynamics over the course of five decades.

If you like Jane Hamilton's books, you might also enjoy reading titles by Jane Smiley, Sue Miller, Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler.

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