1. Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton
2. About the Author
3. Questions for Discussion
4. Recommended Reading
The Jane Hamilton Readers' Group Companion copyright
© 1995, 1999 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton
In these three novels by Jane Hamilton, one finds the birth and development of a strong and unique voice in fiction. Although linked by themes and ideas, each book has its own distinct personality. In The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton has created two women who are far from perfect--their flaws are made painfully apparent--but who discover in themselves a great deal of strength. Although the physical landscapes they inhabit are very mild, these women seem to be surrounded by destructive forces. Their families and communities threaten their peaceful existences--and sometimes even their lives. Although both women may seem initially to be at the mercy of these destructive forces, there is something in them that never quite gives in.
In Hamilton's third book, The Short History of a Prince, she departs from her first two novels both in writing style and choice of main character. Her protagonist, Walter McCloud, is an aspiring teenage ballet dancer who is eventually forced to confront both his brother's death and a lack of talent that destroys his dream. While he also faces trauma and must find a way to rebuild his life, Walter's journey is far more upbeat than those of the women in Hamilton's first two works of fiction. As he struggles toward adulthood--always with a distinct sense of humor--we cannot help but become absorbed.
The Book of Ruth is told from the perspective of a simple, naïve woman who, in describing the events of her life, reveals perhaps more about herself than she is aware. Since Ruth's voice structures the tale, it is very neat and methodical. The major events of the novel are complemented by a rich sense of Ruth's everyday life so that the dramatic climax of the book, which is hinted at throughout, is part of a well-drawn whole.
Hamilton takes a much looser approach in A Map of the World. We are not limited to Alice's point of view in this novel; we learn about the events in her life from the perspective of her husband, Howard, as well. In addition, this novel is not designed to build to a single, final climax. The characters and relationships are perhaps even more complex than they are in The Book of Ruth.
Hamilton experiments further with point of view in The Short History of the Prince, by alternating between the perspective of Walter as a teenage boy and Walter as a man in his thirties. Much of the suspense lies in our curiosity over the direction his life will take and the choices he will make. Refreshingly, Hamilton does not dwell on her main character's homosexuality as an issue, but rather presents it in a matter-of-fact way, as one of the many elements of Walter's interesting, evolving persona.
Despite the stylistic differences among these three books, what remains consistent is Hamilton's ability to convey the emotional lives of her characters with clarity and resonance. Her protagonists' pain is palpable, and their joys are our rewards as well.
This guide is designed to aid you in reading, discussing, and more fully enjoying these illuminating works. Here you may find new perspectives on Hamilton's fiction and new avenues for conversation.
About the Author
Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's magazine. Her first book, The Book of Ruth, was awarded the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book Club. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was an international bestseller. The Short History of a Prince won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction.
Questions for Discussion
The Book of Ruth
1) Ruth's story is particularly poignant because of the way she conveys so much that is beyond her understanding. What are the differences between what Ruth tells us and what we infer about her life and the people in it? How does Hamilton achieve this?
2) How do you respond to Ruth's naïveté? Does her lack of understanding about the people in her life frustrate you? Or does her innocence make her more sympathetic?
3) May is in many ways a monstrous character in Ruth's life. What about her, if anything, makes her seem more human? Do you see any of May in Ruth?
4) How does Ruth get caught between May and Ruby? Does Justy's birth improve the situation for her at all?
5) Daisy is a puzzling character because of the way she seems to comfortable in the world of the novel, even while she remains distinct and apart from everyone in that world. How is her friendship important to Ruth? Is she as well-drawn as the other characters in the book?
6) The Book of Ruth's climax is hinted at subtly (and not so subtly) throughout the novel. What effect does this type of foreshadowing have on your reading? Does it add to or diminish the impact of the events when they finally occur?
7) How do you respond to Ruth's attitude toward Ruby at the end of the book?
A Map of the World
1) We get very little objective sense of the characters in A Map of the World in relation to each other and their environment; their accounts are extremely subjective and heavily tinged with emotion. How do you respond to this interiority?
2) How well do you feel you know Alice? Howard? Theresa? Does Alice come across the same way through Howard's eyes as she does through her own? How consistent is your impression of Howard?
3) Do you trust Alice and Howard's versions of the events of the novel? What do you imagine they seem like to the people around them?
4) What is the function of Howard's narration? Does his perspective change your feelings about Alice and what happens to her? Is it clear why he doubts her?
5) What do we learn about Alice from her interaction with the other prisoners? What does she learn about herself?
6) At the point of the novel when Alice is arrested, she is still completely overwhelmed and incapacitated by Lizzy's death and her role in it. How do the accusations against Alice and her time in prison change her and help her to deal with what happened to Lizzy?
7) Do you feel as though things are resolved at the end of the novel?
8) Which character in the novel do you respond to the most?
9) Compare the characters of Aunt Sid in The Book of Ruth and Aunt Kate in A Map of the World. Do they serve the same function for Ruth and Alice?
The Short History of a Prince
1) A sense of place is significant in each of Hamilton's books. At the heart of The Short History of a Prince is the family's summer home at Lake Margaret. What role does this big old house play in Hamilton's tale? Why is it so important?
2) In A Map of the World, Hamilton takes us on a slow, downward spiral toward disaster; in The Short History of a Prince, she makes it clear early on that Walter's brother will die, thereby revealing the book's ultimate tragedy and then moving beyond it. Does this defuse the story's suspense? Once you know of the death, what is it that makes you want to read on?
3) Walter's response to his brother's impending death is cruel and self-centered. Do you understand his behavior at this point? Are you able to forgive him? Why?
4) One of the pleasures of this novel is the evolution of Walter and Susan's friendship. How does Hamilton manage to show each character at his or her worst in this relationship and then have us believe that they can be devoted friends?
5) Sue Rawson is an important figure in Walter's life. Her association with the world of classical arts holds particular meaning for Walter. What do you think Hamilton is trying to say with her portrayal of this woman who seems to live on an altogether different plane than the rest of her family?
6) Is the book written entirely from Walter's point of view? Did you notice any times when you felt the presence of an omniscient narrator? If so, did this change of perspective pull you out of the story?
7) What was the theme of this novel? What does Hamilton wish to convey about the search to find meaning and satisfaction in life?
8) Walter's humor sets the tone for Hamilton's story; how did this affect your reading of a tale involving tragic death, failed romance, and loss of a dream? How does Hamilton manage to take us through such a journey and end with hope?
9) How would you describe the world as portrayed in Jane Hamilton's novels? Is it particularly just or unjust? Does it strike you as realistic?
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! (Bantam)
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine (Bantam)
Houston, Pam. Cowboys Are My Weakness (Washington Square Press)
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams (HarperCollins)
MacLean, Norman. A River Runs Through It (Pocket Books)
Stegner, Wallace. Crossing to Safety (Penguin)