Jane Hamilton Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Oak Park, Illinois, 1957. Education: Carleton College, B.A. 1979. Career: Apple farmer, 1979—; freelance writer, 1982—. Lives in Rochester, Wisconsin. Awards: Ernest Hemingway Foundation award (PEN American Center), 1989. Agent: c/o Doubleday Publishers, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036, U.S.A.
The Book of Ruth. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1988; published inEngland as The Frogs Are Still Singing, London, Collins, 1989.
A Map of the World. New York, Doubleday, 1994.
The Short History of a Prince: A Novel. New York, Random House, 1998.
Disobedience: A Novel. New York, Doubleday, 2000.
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Jane Hamilton is a best-selling author whose novels deal primarily with the varieties of pain. She gives voice to exceptionally dimensional characters, and renders ordinary and extreme hardship alike with a moving and wholesome realism.
In 1982, on her way to the promise of a job in the New York publishing industry, Hamilton stopped off in rural Wisconsin where she has remained. Her plots grow out of this environment—unremarkable and yet, like every place with human entanglements, extraordinary in every way. Hamilton has described herself as "an anthropologist in a foreign country," and her novels are studies of emotional territory.
In her first novel, The Book of Ruth, Hamilton maps the dreary life of the emotionally abused Ruth Grey, who, like all of her protagonists, searches for meaning in an apparently irrational universe. What distinguishes Hamilton's fiction from other novelists who examine this kind of existential pain, however, is the fact that her characters nonetheless manage to find meaning and grace—even eking out pleasure and a measure of pride. Ruth recounts her life in rural Illinois as a story about dignity, and Hamilton's attention to detail vivifies both Ruth's hardship and resilience. The novel received the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation award for best new novel, and it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her TV book club in 1996.
Hamilton's next book, A Map of the World, is also a domestic narrative set in the Midwest. Inspired by a drowning accident at her son's day-care center, Hamilton tells the story of Howard and Alice Goodheart who, the author suggests, are victims of the provincial prejudice that prevents people from embracing difference. The farming Goodhearts are received with a chill by their suburban neighbors, except for one friendly couple, Dan and Theresa Collins. When the youngest Collins child drowns in the Goodheart pond, Alice blames herself for the death. Then, later, she is accused by a boy of sexual abuse in her capacity as a part-time school nurse. The book has been praised for Hamilton's characterization of a broad range of characters—from women locked in jail to little children, each with a history—and for its belief that "a map of the world" is indeed possessable.
Hamilton continues this biographical approach to fiction in her third novel, The Short History of a Prince, which recounts the history of Walter McCloud, first as a young boy who loves Tchaikovsky and dreams of being a dancer, then as a homosexual teenager growing up in 1970s, and finally as a man returning home and confronting his memories of pain and loss. Once again, Hamilton's themes are family and friendship, cruelty and redemption, and yet in this novel she also considers the contours of artistic ambition and failure, as Walter must acknowledge the limits of his talent.
—Michele S. Shauf
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