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The war at home
Jane Hamilton's new novel intriguingly combines the personal and the political
Hamilton continues to explore the inner lives of Midwestern characters with precise observation.
Hamilton continues to explore the inner lives of Midwestern characters with precise observation.
Credit:Mark Sibley

On a scorching day in late July, Jane Hamilton breezes into a coffee shop buzzing about a new novel. The book she's visibly excited about is not her own, but another September release: Alice McDermott's After This, which comes out two weeks before Hamilton's fifth novel, When Madeline Was Young. "It's the kind of book that just makes you glad it's in the world," she raves, praising McDermott's talent.

But Hamilton herself has reaped substantial critical and commercial success since the publication of her first novel, The Book of Ruth, in 1988. "Unforgettably, beat by beat, Hamilton maps the best and worst of the human heart and all the mysterious, uncharted country in between," said Kirkus Reviews. Oprah Winfrey selected The Book of Ruth for her book club, as well as Hamilton's next book, 1994's A Map of the World. The latter novel was also made into a film starring Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore.

Throughout a career that began almost by accident and now spans nearly two decades, Hamilton, 49, has straddled the fine line between literary depth and popular acclaim. When Madeline Was Young, to be released by Doubleday Sept. 19, continues Hamilton's exploration of the inner lives of Midwestern characters rendered with the precise observation her readers have come to expect. It touches on weighty issues like war, race and the meaning of marriage, but without being preachy. Rather, these issues are threaded through generations of the bookish Maciver family and the rather unusual, three-sided marriage at its core.

Clad in a sleeveless lavender dress and Birkenstock sandals, the animated, friendly Hamilton seems quintessentially "Madison" but lives on an apple orchard in the small Racine County town of Rochester. A native of Oak Park, Ill., where much of her new novel is set, Hamilton probably never thought she'd spend her adult life in rural Wisconsin.

After earning a bachelor's in English lit from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., she planned to pursue an MFA in writing, but the graduate schools to which she applied rejected her. (They've long since eaten those rejection letters, I imagine.) Instead, Hamilton wound up marrying Bob Willard and moving to his Wisconsin farm, where she developed her craft the old-fashioned way: through diligent reading and writing.

"It turned out to be for the best," she says. "Writing was something I hoped to do in private. It was much better for me to work at the forms myself. At that time, I didn't know anyone else who was writing; I was 22."

There was work to do on the farm, but in the winters, she says, "I could do my own thing. I just read and kind of amused myself."

Hamilton is prone to understatement and self-deprecating wit when talking about herself. In fact, she produced something much more impressive than mere self-amusement. The Book of Ruth landed her the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel.

Hamilton continued to publish while also raising two children. It wasn't easy, and she now marvels at how she managed to keep writing. "I don't know when I really wrote those books," she says. "I was in a fever."

When she recently reread A Map of the World, she says, "I was reading it as if a stranger had written it."

With her children, now 19 and 21, off to college, Hamilton has more time to write. Yet following up 2000's remarkable tale of adultery and its aftershocks, Disobedience, was not an easy task.

Hamilton gave the first reading of the promotional tour for the Disobedience paperback on Sept. 10, 2001. After the terrorist attacks the next day, the tour was quickly scrapped. It took Hamilton five days to nab a rental car and return home to Wisconsin.

Hamilton had already begun work on her next book, but it wasn't going as well as she had hoped. "I sort of knew that it was going to be dead on arrival," she says frankly. "It was after 9/11, and to be writing about familial dysfunction seemed so trivial and frivolous and not really worth doing. There was a vacuum for what the new stories in our culture were going to be. Plus, I consider [Jonathan Franzen's novel] The Corrections to be the last word on family dysfunction. I wanted to write something about war, without being didactic."

After a reading at Hope College in Holland, Mich., Hamilton realized that she hated the project she was working on. She decided to go home and eke out one more draft to see if the book was salvageable - and then made the difficult decision to scrap four years' worth of work. "Working on a bad book was like being in a bad marriage," she says.

Seeing the musical The Light in the Piazza with her sister sparked some new thinking. Based on the 1960 work The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales by Mississippi writer Elizabeth Spencer, the musical tells the story of a young woman who is cognitively impaired and finds romance with an Italian man on a European trip. The language barrier obscures her impairment.

That premise resonated with Hamilton, and a similar situation forms the kernel for When Madeline Was Young, a curious blend of the personal and the political. Soon after Aaron Maciver and Madeline Schiller wed in the 1940s, disaster strikes: Madeline receives a traumatic brain injury in a bike accident. Or, as our narrator, Aaron's son Mac, puts it, "My father went out for a bike ride with his wife and some time later brought home from the hospital a 25-year-old woman who would forever have the intellectual powers of a seven-year-old."

While Aaron Maciver remarries, he does not shirk his commitment to his first wife, and Madeline remains at home with Aaron and his new wife, Julia. Aaron and Julia take care of Madeline and eventually become parents to Mac and his sister. Theirs is an unusual upbringing; in their early years, the children are led to believe Madeline is their sister, not their father's first wife.

The narrator, Mac, is an intellectual and conflicted young man who grows up to be a doctor and a father himself. His relationships with other branches of the Maciver family are both intimate and awkward. We meet his Aunt Fiona, who takes a pro-Vietnam War stance opposed to Mac's parents' views. His cousin Buddy, less academic but more at ease with himself and the world, serves in Vietnam and eventually becomes the parent of a soldier sent to Iraq, bringing the story into the present day.

Throughout When Madeline Was Young, our perceptions of the world Hamilton creates are filtered through Mac's mind, much of it during his adolescence. In that sense, Mac bears similarities to Henry, the narrator of Disobedience. Says Hamilton, "I loved writing Henry in Disobedience. Adolescence is a very potent time. A lot of adolescents have a sense of their own power, but they also know they're powerless. There's that tension."

Mac's power is his intelligence, but he also feels powerless in his inability to act with the naturalness and confidence of cousin Buddy, who nicknames him - not completely affectionately - "Brains." During a particularly charged scene, Madeline's trusting, outgoing nature is exploited by a neighborhood kid. Despite Mac's much closer relationship to Madeline, it is Buddy who saves the day.

Asked if it was difficult to create the brain-injured character of Madeline, Hamilton says, "For a year, I had a medical textbook. But Madeline's accident takes place before modern neuroscience and its treatments. Brain injuries are as diverse as snowflakes, and at a certain point you just have to wing it."

Balancing the domestic drama of a beautiful, brain-injured young woman living with her former husband and his growing family is the larger drama of the encroaching Vietnam War and, in the present-day parts of the book, the war in Iraq. Here, Hamilton's intentions are more explicitly political: "The Iraq War has been very parallel to Vietnam in terms of our ignorance going in and understanding the kind of culture we're dealing with."

With the novel's shifting themes and time periods, Hamilton creates a kaleidoscopic structure. We move from small moments of daily life to world-changing political events. Although this approach can occasionally seem meandering, the book's conclusion is potent and poignant.

Hamilton is known for raising moral questions in her fiction, and When Madeline Was Young is no exception. Consider Mac's rumination: "My father's sadness came to me unbidden and at odd hours. His future was shattered and yet day after day the ghost of that future sat stolidly across from him at the breakfast table. I knew Madeline as a woman who had moved into her injury, who seemed to inhabit her limitations, a woman who was fixed in her self. But what of those months and years after the accident, what of that long period of becoming?"

Through the lens of Maciver family history, readers consider the meaning of marital commitment as well as the ways in which larger events - things beyond our control - play out in the minutiae of family life.

Although Hamilton counts Madison writing luminaries Lorrie Moore and Kevin Henkes among her friends, she sees her craft as essentially solitary. She loves talking about books, but doesn't really discuss her own works-in-progress: "Writing is a private enterprise. You're in a world of your own making. You have to figure it out yourself."

Hamilton typically makes it to her desk by 8 a.m. and works until 3 p.m. - habits left from her children's school days - with a break for a walk during the day. "I write quickly once it's going, but I rewrite for a long time," she notes.

Her earlier successes don't make new projects any easier. "Each book has new challenges and things you feel you're possibly not smart enough to deal with. It's an odd profession; what you've done before doesn't necessarily help you."

When she's not writing, Hamilton plays the recorder, cooks and catches up with "Project Runway" or "The Sopranos." But perhaps her truest passion is gardening. "When I leave, I think of my garden, which is really sort of pathetic! I'm like a new mom who keeps picturing her baby's face when she has to go away."

The novel considers the meaning of marital commitment as well as the ways in which larger events play out in the minutiae of family life.

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