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  • Written by Jane Hamilton
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  • When Madeline Was Young
  • Written by Jane Hamilton
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On Sale: September 19, 2006
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-385-51998-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Jane Hamilton, award-winning author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World brings us a rich and loving novel about a non-traditional family in the aftermath of a terrible accident.When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers a head injury in a bicycle crash, she is left with the mental capabilities of a six-year-old. In the years that follow, Aaron and his second wife care for Madeline with deep tenderness and devotion as they raise two children of their own. Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest and exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes the boundaries of love.


Chapter One

Everyone when I was growing up had a dog or a brother or a cousin, someone close by, called Buddy. The Buddy in my life had been christened Samuel Schubert Eastman in 1946. Certainly he deserved a dignified name, and yet we boys knew that for everyday use "Samuel" was too grave for a person like Buddy. Our cousin, as heroes must be, was the specimen among us. He was graced with sandy hair, green eyes, a dusting of freckles on his sunburnt nose, and thick gold lashes that matted in triangles against his cheeks after swimming. My mother used to say that his delicate features and those starlet eyelashes in his athlete's body were what confused the girls, the poor things sure he was tender. When he was fourteen, he told me part of what he guessed was a family secret, drawing me in one night with that piece of overrated information, the cheap start, the chocolate with a boozy liquid center. Buddy didn't yet know that there are a limited number of secrets in the repertory, very few of them worth disclosing, most of them good only for the quick thrill of stopping the pulse: suddenly you are not who you think you are. Despite his revelation and his alarming suggestion, it was even then his use of the word "secret" that seemed most vulgar.

We were sitting on the end of the dock at Moose Lake in northern Wisconsin. The house far up on the hill was not an ordinary Moose Lake cottage, the usual clapboard structure with uneven floorboards and a screened-in porch. No, the Maciver family house was made of granite and oak, walnut, copper, and English brick, a fortress with seven fireplaces and fifteen bedrooms, each with a sink scrubbed clean in the corner. Five of the rooms had their own sleeping porches, with faded cotton hammocks from Barbados strung across, the place the girls napped on the hot afternoons. There was also an icehouse, a pump house, a summer kitchen, a boathouse, and a barn. We were all proud to have an estate, which, we were called to remember, was the fruit of our dead grandfather's labor. That he was related to us seemed implausible--a man who had grown rich manufacturing glue? He had shot a buffalo on the range, the rug in the parlor as proof, but also with that nimble trigger finger he'd mounted and labeled and framed his butterfly collection. We loved to look at the petticoat wings and the sad balding thoraxes, the part that embarrassed us. Our forebear, the captain of industry, the great hunter, the lover of beauty, had been clever enough not to lose all of his fortune in the Depression, had made it possible for us boys of the glue dynasty to spend our days under our grandmother's direction in the boot camp of summer idleness. On her schedule we swam, we played tennis, we fished, and we chopped wood.

Buddy mentioned the putative family scandal to me one night, after we'd finally been released from the evening game of charades, all of us slow to get my grandmother's Sapphira and the Slave Girl. He and I were sitting on the rough wood slats of the dock, as we often did, moving our feet through the water, Buddy reviewing what had just happened or telling me what we might accomplish next. As if the idea were just occurring to him he said, "Hey! You know Madeline, pretty Madeline!" He was singing her name. "You could feel her up and it's not like you'd be a pervert. And if you knocked her up--say you knocked her up--she'd have a drooling mongrel that looked like you, but there's no way it would be a real half-breed."

When I didn't answer, he nudged me with his elbow. "What's the matter? You mean you don't know about your"--here he drew out the word, hissing in my face--"sister? She's fair game, Brains, that's what I'm telling you. Everyone should be that lucky, to have the opportunity right here in the home."

I knew about mating, my father's word, and I had the vaguest sense from dreams that my tallywhacker, as my mother fondly called the part--although it was unruly and had unreasonable hopes--might even so be a source of pride to me someday. In my waking hours it scared me to think of that someday, and I couldn't in much detail imagine how another person could participate in my privacy. The mechanics, then, the logistics of feeling a girl up, were impossible: not only how and of course where, exactly, but why?

"Madeline's not related to any of us!" Buddy cried, cuffing my shoulder. "The big secret, pal."

"I know it," I lied.

She'd probably really appreciate the, uh, attention." He laughed into his chest, my worldly cousin enjoying his own joke.

I suspect that my parents had told me about Madeline in some fashion when I was little, so that I'd always held the knowledge that strictly speaking she was not a blood relative. But she behaved as sisters do, and my parents treated her as one of us, and because she was perennially young I never thought of her as anything but sister. My parents were raising Louise and me, and always Madeline, educating us according to our abilities to be thoughtful, useful, and loving, keepers of the New Deal.

Later that night, in the boathouse, where all the boys slept, I lay awake brooding over what Buddy had told me. There was no electricity in the building, nor were there lights around the lake. The rough pine walls were dirty from decades of kerosene smoke, and the sheets that had once been white were dull from our heat and sweat. The darkness was complete. I had a hazy understanding that Madeline was some kind of relation--exactly how eluded me--who had been injured as a young woman. I was horrified even starting to think about her, against my will, in the way Buddy had directed. Everyone else in the room was asleep, and although I would have liked to go outside I felt that I shouldn't get up or move around. My stomach began to ache, as it often did when I was with Buddy for long. I could never repeat what he'd said, not to anyone, and most of all not to my parents. For the first time I wondered if they had to worry about Madeline, if she was ever in danger from the neighborhood teenagers, some of them nearly as adult as Buddy. My cousin surely wouldn't have hurt Madeline, and by "hurt" I meant kissing. But the way he had laughed into his shirt made me consider and reject and wonder again if he might have done something to my sister.

Madeline was in fact my father's age, forty-one that year. If Buddy had told me right off that Madeline had once been my father's wife, what would I have said or done, sitting on the pier, my legs in the water? Would I have laughed out loud? Would I have given a few kicks, splashing my cousin, making sure to get him all wet? Maybe I'd have argued, saying that a person who wasn't capable of doing logic puzzles past a second-grade level could hardly have been a wife. Or, as Buddy spoke, would my heart have abruptly begun to beat in my chest, hard, loud thumps--that overburdened muscle always the organ that registers the truth?

I suppose it's odd that for the length of my childhood Madeline never looked any different to me. I'd heard it said by the women on our block that she was a beauty--"a real Princess Grace," one of them called her. Despite Madeline's height and her regal charms, I always thought of her as a girl, first someone who was my older sister and then, forever after, when I'd bypassed her intellectually, as my youngest sister. She was long-legged and slim, with a silky blond ponytail, each day a fresh ribbon, a new color around the rubber band. Every other night, after her bath, she sat on my mother's bed under the Lady Vanity hair dryer, imperial in the shower-cap device, the diadem that was puffy from the hot air blowing through a fat cord. She did have a high forehead and notable cheekbones, and, by rights as a princess, a rosy mouth that puckered so prettily into a pout, what could be the precursor to a squall. She was a firm believer in outfits, so that if she was dressed in an ensemble as simple as a pair of turquoise-and-yellow-checked pedal pushers and a sleeveless yellow shirt, her socks were bound to be just that yellow, and her tennis shoes, somehow, miraculously, were exactly the turquoise of her slacks. Twice a year my mother took her to a charity resale store, where Madeline, in a fever of excitement, updated her wardrobe. She was a girl who laid tops and bottoms on the rug before she went to sleep, and who insisted that Russia, the cleaning lady, iron her play clothes.

I say she seemed a girl to me, but I also knew she was of her own kind--Madeline, the only one of us outside of time. I was old enough to understand the strange, mournful noise that came from her lonely bedroom, the sound of adult pleasure a person was supposed to stifle. I didn't want to think about any of it as I lay awake at Moose Lake. Somewhere in the middle of the night I realized that what was disturbing me most had nothing to do with my own family. I sat up suddenly, fumbled around on my windowsill, and struck a match. Madeline, my father, my mother, and even Louise and I--our lives were not to be made into stories for Buddy to tell. I lit the candle in order to look at him, unafraid then of waking anyone. His full, smooth lips were open against his pillow, his freckled back rising and falling. Before me was the boy who had the rest of his unending life to be the Maciver bard, to alter our history to suit himself. It surprised me, standing so close, that his breath was as sour as any of the other boys' familiar stink. Of course I had smelled him every summer, smelled his particular sweat mixed with the faint tang of Old Spice, but I hadn't realized that I didn't like it. I was unaccustomed to feeling insubordination with Buddy, and yet I was sure that in a minute I would effortlessly tip the flame to his soft, worn sheet and set him on fire.

Chapter Two

Buddy and I didn’t discuss Madeline after that night at the lake--not because he'd expired in a plume of flames before my eyes, but because the topic didn't present itself again. We went on during the vacation as if the conversation hadn't taken place, or as if I had gladly soaked up the scant communication and had no further questions. He used to jump me from behind, always a big joke, and we'd tumble down the hill wrestling. As I remember, right after the revelation I did resist him with more force than usual and also almost pinned him, something I rarely was able to do. Still, it would never have crossed his mind that because of our talk it was he I might think of in a different light, rather than Madeline. She was not after all a girl you could consider for very long, weighing this part of her personality against that part. You spent your time with her fighting boredom, the way you would if you were told to watch little children. Even though in Buddy's character there was more range, although he was not simple, surely he would have had no idea that anyone might lose admiration for him.

That summer he introduced me to alcohol, and under the influence of the small amount of beer he was able to pilfer, we gambled with nickels instead of pennies. Our bad behavior is quaint now, adorable even, but at the time I thought we were in the most serious danger; I was certain that the discovery and our punishment would be so shaming, our characters so besmirched, that we would never really recover ourselves. We drank up in the woods in the dark, the one bottle going straight to my head, and afterward we'd stumble into the boathouse for cards with the younger boys. It stood to reason, then, that Buddy should have retained his luster. He instructed us as a group about "women," he called them, always pursing his lips as if he were whistling right before the "wo," and smiling hard on the "n," humming the final sound, in case the importance of the word should escape our notice. Our goal, he told us, was to get the goods from women with the least amount of trouble. His advice by and large ran toward pacification as the means to maintaining the upper hand, a general principle beyond our reach.

"Say you've snagged yourself a woman," he'd say, taking his time to arrange his cards. "Once you've got her, you want to make sure you tell her she's foxy, a doll face, a biscuit, but don't go overboard, you understand? You flirt with other women just enough to keep her on edge. You act like you're listening to the whining, you keep your peepers on her, you wrinkle your eyebrows." He demonstrated, head cocked, skin creased, the paragon of attention. "Why do you do this, boys?"

He couldn't really expect us to know the answer, could he? We all looked at the floor.

"Why?" he asked again. Cousin Nick coughed, and Petie accidentally dropped the rock he'd been holding. "Because," Buddy finally said, "you are concerned."

We nodded solemnly, hopeful that when our moment with a female came we could do exactly as he said. Although he had the sense that beer was too adult for the others, he had us all smoking cigarettes.

"Let me tell you something"--he'd take a drag no-handed as he slapped his cards down, the cigarette lifting when he drew in, the thing somehow staying firm on the ledge of his lower lip as he exhaled. "Getting pussy, it's like buying a car. You make your offer, right? The salesman counters, you make another offer, the salesman comes back with a bum deal." He surveyed the circle. "What do you do?" Again, that quiet. "Do you take it?"

"What's pussy?" said Cousin Petie, who had only recently been allowed to sleep with the big boys.

We laughed, most of us with the heartiness of discomfort, unsure ourselves of the details.

"You do not take the deal, you hear me? You hit the trail. Nine times out of ten, the hustler is at your heels, begging for your business."

Not long ago, I remembered that simile of Buddy's with my cousin Nick. We both recalled being confused enough to wonder which a person should do first, buy a car in order to get a girl, or get the girl so that purchasing the Chevy would be second nature. We marveled at Buddy's ease, the confidence in his delivery. "What you've got to realize, gentlemen," Buddy would say, "is that every single cupcake--unless she's a twatless freak of nature--has a pussy. Don't forget that. You fall for a certain broad, you start thinking she's the only one to get you all dick-brained. That happens, you might as well kiss yourself goodbye." He'd had real experience and he'd taken the time to consider his encounters. We knew his wisdom was hard-earned.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jane Hamilton|Author Q&A

About Jane Hamilton

Jane Hamilton - When Madeline Was Young

Photo © kevin Horan

JANE HAMILTON is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one of the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, the Miami Herald, and People magazine; Disobedience; and The Short History of a Prince. She lives in Rochester, Wisconsin.

 Jane Hamilton is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

1. In your new novel, WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG, a tragic accident befalls newlywed Madeline Maciver in the 1940s, rendering her brain capacity to that of a seven-year-old. This accident serves as a catalyst for change that affects two generations of the Maciver clan. What served as the inspiration for your story?

In Elizabeth Spencer's novella The Light in The Piazza, a young American woman who suffered a brain injury when she was 12 marries an Italian in Florence. Because of the language barrier and the way the woman's mother manipulates the situation, the Italian family does not realize that the bride is impaired. After seeing Adam Guettel's haunting musical, (You've got to love a musical that ends with a song that has the words, "Love's a fake, love's a fraud"!) and reading Spencer's gorgeous novella I couldn't stop thinking about the aftermath: what happens in the years following the wedding? I first saw the Chicago production and as I remember it, the Italian man nearly bumps into Clara in the piazza on his bike. When I went to New York to see it a year later their meeting was different. Had I imagined Fabrizio on the bike? I'm not sure, but the bicycle seemed an important part of my image of both of them and a logical instrument for her tragedy.

2. After the accident, Madeline's husband Aaron divorces her and later marries Julia, the nurse who cared for Madeline during her recovery. Aaron and Julia decide to raise Madeline as their own child (after her own parents basically abandon her), and later have a son and daughter of their own. Why do Aaron and Julia bear familial responsibility for Madeline? How does this decision later affect their relationships with their own children?

That's the big question in the book: Why do the Macivers take care of Madeline? Is it because they are good people through and through, the kind of people who naturally are self-sacrificing, generous, dutiful, kind, loving towards all? Or, do they care for Madeline out of a sense of guilt, as a kind of payback? Mac, the son, and his Aunt Figgy have very different opinions on the matter. Figgy doubts that anyone can be inherently good, that Julia has unflattering reasons for taking care of Madeline — a martyr complex, for one. Mac would say his parents were devoted, dutiful, loving.

3. Mac — Aaron and Julia's son — serves as narrator. After using a male narrative voice in your previous novel, Disobedience, why did you choose to do so again? Did you feel that Mac's perspective affords a more objective, bird's-eye view of the family as a whole?

It's fair to say that this book is a continuation of Disobedience. Although Mac is not Henry Shaw, WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG is yet again a book about a mother and a son. Most of my decisions about a book take place at an intuitive level but I suppose I wanted to see what the mother-son relationship looked like years down the line. It's always interesting to take on the opposite gender, to look at the world, and at women, from the point of view of a man. After writing several books from the point of view of a man I have such sympathy for men! I don't know that Mac has a more objective view of the family, but as a child he felt things keenly; he's sensitive, thoughtful, has a wry sense of humor — he's the observer in the group.

4. Intelligent and introspective, Mac idolizes his worldly, macho cousin Buddy. Mac is awkward whereas Buddy is comfortable in any situation. As both mature through adolescence, we see a distance grow between them, especially when both face the looming Vietnam War. Buddy serves his country and Mac becomes a conscientious objector and their camaraderie is shattered after a disastrous meeting in 1975. Literally and figuratively, war plays a prominent role in the story of the Macivers. How does the specter of Vietnam and the loss of his own son in the Iraq war change Buddy's attitude towards Mac? Did current world events inspire you to write about war or was it a product of the sweeping historical canvas of WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG?

After 9/11 it no longer seemed terribly important or compelling to write domestic novels in which children go to therapy and make peace with their families or wives get empowered, leave their husbands, and meet a better man. Once I had the Madeline bit of the book — that was the kernel — my inchoate ideas about how families talk about politics, how in most every generation boys get sent to war, how an individual's and a nation's idea of goodness and evil shape policy -- came together in the Maciver family arguments. Madeline's story became embedded in the Maciver family and their times. Buddy and Mac's relationship is deep, loving, perhaps a little homo-erotic, hostile, and important to each of them.

4b. Although Mac and Buddy foil each other, their opposite personalities highlighting the other's strengths or weaknesses, they seemingly need each other as well. Their reunion specifically illustrates their intricate relationship — although they have matured and outgrown some of their familial rivalries, they still revert back to horse-play and competition. However, as adults their rough-housing seems therapeutic, a form of connection. How do their different personalities compliment each other? And why, is their relationship, although extremely difficult at times, so important to each character and the plot of the story overall?

Buddy and Mac were litter-mates. Because of those years at the lake house they have a bond that is not, perhaps, as intense as a sibling, but cousin doesn't really describe it. Litter-mates is the term they might use. If they hadn't had that bond, if they were strangers, they would never have been friends; they would have had no interest in one another; they would have been dismissive. Although they don't in some ways understand each other, they do have a deep familiarity of each other's proclivities. That makes for tension in a novel — two characters who have love for each other but deep-seated hostility.

5. As Madeline physically grows older (yet her mind remains permanently fixed), she becomes vaguely aware of her sexuality. In the spring of 1963, she begins "dating" Mikey O'Day, a neighbor who is handicapped due to a bought of meningitis as a baby. Mikey sings nightly at the local Dari-Dip, and Madeline is entranced. Madeline's burgeoning sexual development mimics the sexual revolution of the 1960s — Julia reads both The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex — yet Mikey later moves to Florida with his parents and Madeline is devastated. Was it difficult to extend Madeline's stasis to her love life as well? How did your research help you successfully render the relationship between two mentally handicapped people?

One of the things that is striking about The Light in the Piazza is how impressionistic and brief Clara's medical history is. I read a lot about brain injuries — however, as much as I admire a book like Saturday I didn't want to write a novel that features specific details, page after page, about neurophysiology. Although Mac is a doctor he doesn't feel compelled to think about the characters of his childhood through the lens of medicine. In fact, Mikey's syndrome is not something he would have gotten as a result of meningitis. Mac would have known that but as a grown man but he chooses to continue to see Mikey just as the neighborhood gossip-girls presented him. Every person who is brain injured is different (so I read) — it might have been more medically likely that under the circumstances Madeline would be sexually aggressive and overweight but I did feel a certain liberty to invent her, brain injury and all, having my guide the statement that everyone who has been injured has unique behavior.

5b. Julia is a very strong female character. Endlessly patient and generous with Madeline, she simultaneously loudly voices her opinions about politics and the war, sparking heated family debates. Was the character of Julia modeled after anyone in your own family? Her daughter Louise finds her mother's attitudes hypocritical — Julia promotes civil rights and freedom, yet Louise accuses her of treating their housekeeper Russia as a servant or even a slave. As an adult, Mac realizes that perhaps Julia and Aaron limited Madeline's growth or possibilities as well. Is there a contradiction between Julia's strengths and beliefs in public issues and her actions in the home?

Julia is not based on anyone in my own family, no. My own mother probably shares Julia's political beliefs and although she goes to city council meetings and takes part in her community I would not call her an activist, (and also, my own mother is and was physically beautiful — a stunner, in fact). I think Mac is correct when he's arguing with his sister about the housekeeper, that Russia is a product of her time, that a 60 year old black woman who has worked for the same family for 40 years can't simply go out and get a job at Marshall Fields (No Macys!) and find happiness. Julia, too, would have understood the complexity of the race situation, whereas Louise is a young firebrand, a girl who is all fury.

6. In the final chapters, the adult Mac accompanies Madeline to Italy. They revisit the piazza where the young Madeline met her first love before her accident, Mac desperately wishes for Madeline to remember this happier time. He tries to trigger her memory by telling her a story of a beautiful, young girl who meets an Italian man on a bicycle. Does she remember anything of her "previous" life? Does it matter if she does? Why is it so important to Mac for her to remember this particular event? Why does it take Mac so long to realize that the family did very little to improve her daily life or expand the limits of her mind?

In her 80's, on that trip to Italy, I doubt that Madeline remembers anything about that love moment. I think it's probable though, that after the accident she remembered pieces of her old life that her long-term memory was not as disrupted as her husband believed it to be. Mac wants Madeline to remember the beautiful Italian boy because he's a little drunk, because he has a genuine if perhaps cockeyed need to have her seize her old self. I'd argue that Julia Maciver did try to help Madeline improve her mind, especially at first, doing puzzles with her, reading to her, doing craft projects. Mac doesn't question the fact that his parents infantilized her because she was always as she was — something as he grew up he accepted as a matter of faith. It takes his Aunt's bullying him to make him think about Madeline in a different way.

7. Your books all have Midwestern settings. Does the Midwest represent a particular slice of American life to you? How does a sense of place inform your characters and their story?

I've always lived in the Midwest. I can't un-tease this part of my life, my self, from the other parts. When people ask me what it is to be a Midwestern writer I don't know what to say. Would I write differently if I lived in Mississippi or Colorado? Probably. But I can't say how.

8. Julia's death initially angers Mac. There are suspicions that she knew of her illness, but did not take steps to prevent her death. As a doctor Mac feels he has failed his mother, yet Aaron reminds Mac that Julia didn't want to be strapped to a high chair outfitted with a drool bucket. Why does Julia decide to die without medical help? Is it a reflection on Madeline's limitations that Julia has witnessed and aided?

I think Julia has heart failure. I doubt she knew she was going to die. But also, I think she would have been happy with her fate, if she'd been able to plan it.

8b. Julia's death also rejoins Aaron and Madeline. They have come full circle, growing old together as they had originally imagined before her accident. What does their later relationship represent?

I suppose if it represents anything it is the old fashioned idea of duty, of staying the course in marriage.

9. How does Mac's childhood and his relationship with Madeline affect his relationship with his own daughters? Did his mother's strength, education, and generosity influence the way he raises his own children? Did Madeline's childlike personality help him more easily relate to his daughters?

I think his relationship with Madeline directly affects his relationship with his wife. He ends up with a woman who is somewhat child-like — (he even calls her Lamb, just as his mother called Madeline Lamb). He's stuck in a marriage — no way out for the dutiful man that he is — but without the benefit of a third-wheel.

10. On the surface, Mac's early childhood seems idyllic — loving parents, neighborhood friends, a large summerhouse where his extended family gathers for holidays and reunions. However, Madeline's misfortune haunts Mac's life — if it wasn't for her bicycle accident he would not exist. The tumultuous political environment of the Vietnam War and Gulf Wars places a further stress on Mac and the world in general. Although WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG begins in the seemingly innocent 1950s, Mac's life is never uncomplicated. Does the beginning of the book evoke a more innocent time in America and then illustrate a troubling progression? Or do the Maciver family's uniqueness and the world's political difficulties show that there never was truly an innocent period?

I don't think the 1950's were an innocent time, and the Macivers wouldn't have felt it was so. Despite the prosperity of the 1950's, the recent war, the revelation of the death camps, the dropping of the bombs, the McCarthy hearings, the race issues — no, this was not a time of innocence. The Maciver family argues through the decades and the same mistakes are made.

11. You portray Madeline's character with extreme sensitivity and care. How did you blend her adult attitudes and needs with her childlike demeanor and state of mind? Did her intellectual and emotional regression highlight her personality before the accident?

I wrote a lot of drafts, is about all I can say.

12. What are you currently working on now? What book have you recently read and enjoyed?

Alice McDermott's After This is the best book I've read in a decade. She is sublime — in a class of her own.

I'm reading and thinking towards a new book but don't know what, exactly, it will be.

From the Hardcover edition.



"Mesmerizing. . . . Bittersweet, funny. . . . Hamilton affirms her status as one of our most magnetic and provocative novelists." —The Chicago Tribune“Among the most graceful and thoughtful writers to work the fertile ground that is the Midwestern family.” —The Atlantic Monthly "Utterly elevating and joyful, a long spiritual drink in a parched landscape." —The Washington Post"A study in grace and compassion." —The Boston Globe“Hamilton’s new novel is not to be forgotten.” —USA Today
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

“Mesmerizing. . . . Bittersweet, funny. . . . Hamilton affirms her status as one of our most magnetic and provocative novelists.”
Chicago Tribune

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Jane Hamilton’s When Madeline Was Young, a rich and loving novel about a nontraditional family in the aftermath of a terrible accident.

About the Guide

When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers a head injury in a bicycle crash, she is left with the mental capabilities of a six-year-old. In the years that follow, Aaron and his second wife care for Madeline with deep tenderness and devotion as they raise two children of their own. Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer’s The Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest and exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes the boundaries of love.

About the Author

Jane Hamilton is the author of The Book of Ruth, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, and A Map of the World, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named one the top ten books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, The Miami Herald, and People. Both The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World have been selections of Oprah’s Book Club. Her following work, The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998, and her novel Disobedience, was published by Anchor in 2001. She lives and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.

Discussion Guides

1. What aspects of youth are expressed in the novel’s title? Was it wrong, as Figgy believes, to give Madeline the trappings of a little girl?

2. How did Figgy and Julia each define the ideal mother, the ideal wife, and the ideal life in general?

3. How would you describe the narrator’s tone as he guides us through his unusual family history? How does Mac (Timothy) resolve the knowledge that Madeline’s accident made it possible for him to be born?

4. Mac shares many nostalgic memories of his neighborhood, alongside wry observations about contemporary youth who spout pop psychology. How does Mac’s life as a husband and father compare to the family in which he was raised? What has been gained and lost in his family through these three generations?

5. What accounts for Julia’s tireless patience with Madeline? Would Madeline have done the same for Julia if the circumstances had been reversed? What drew Timothy’s father to two such seemingly different women?

6. We know from the beginning that the Macivers are wealthy (“We were all proud to have an estate . . . the fruit of our dead grandfather’s labor,” Mac says on p. 2). How does Mac feel about money? What does When Madeline Was Young illustrate about the concept of charity?

7. What does Mac tell us, particularly during his tour of Russia’s world after her husband’s murder, about his opinions regarding poverty, race, and class? Is his sister correct in viewing Russia as a slave? Was his mother unrealistic? What did he learn from the summer with Cleveland and his sister?

8. Near the end of chapter six, Mac repeats lines from William Wordsworth while watching Madeline at the poolside. “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” ends with these lines: “She lived unknown, and few could know / When Lucy ceased to be; / But she is in her grave, and, oh / The difference to me!” Does this poem capture the essence of Madeline’s interactions with men, or is it an ironic choice?

9. Should Mikey and Madeline have been allowed to marry? Which are the most and least genuine relationships described in the novel?

10. The Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam form the historical backdrop for much of the novel. What tone is set as Mac weaves Madeline’s story with his recollections of this turbulent period? What was different about the undercurrent of war when the family gathered for the funeral of Buddy’s son, Kyle?

11. Mac shares his father’s enthusiasm for natural history. How does Mac’s fascination with the natural world and anatomy shape his understanding of Madeline’s injuries? Is his approach to life clinical?

12. How did your impressions of Buddy shift throughout the novel? Did Buddy “rescue” Madeline from Jerry in chapter ten? Why does Mac not see him as heroic, contrary to Russia’s point of view?

13. In chapter fifteen, why does Mac so badly want Madeline to remember the boy she encountered when she was in Italy years ago?

14. What did Buddy and Mac resolve during their brawl in the novel’s final chapter?

15. Jane Hamilton credits Elizabeth Spencer’s novella The Light in the Piazza for partially inspiring When Madeline Was Young. If you have read the novella, or seen its 1962 film version (starring Olivia de Havilland), or been in the audience for the award-winning musical, share your experience with the other members of your book group. What might Madeline and Clara have thought of each other? What extreme differences exist between the matriarchs? In what way do the authors portray opposite forms of love?

16. The epigraph emphasizes physical beauty as they key to being captivating. Is Madeline empowered by looks that match conventional definitions of beauty, or does her beauty make her a victim? What might her fate have been had she looked more like Julia (without the girdle)?

17. What unusual tales distinguish your family history? Do you have a relative who, as Madeline did for Mac, played an unconventional role in your development?

18. Each of Jane Hamilton’s novels is unique; this originality is her hallmark. Discuss her previous works in the context of When Madeline Was Young. What are the conflicts and intensities that drive her diverse cast of characters?

  • When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton
  • September 04, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.00
  • 9781400096992

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