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Jane Hamilton Reader's Companion

A Map of the World:

Anchor trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-47311-7, $12.00 US/ $15.95 CAN

Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-47310-9, $22.00 US/ $28.95 CAN

The Book of Ruth:

Anchor trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-26570-0, $9.95 US/ $12.95 CAN


1. Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton
2. About the Author
3. Questions for Discussion
4. More Recommended Reading

Jane Hamilton Reader's Companion, ISBN 0-385-47878-1, copyright © 1995 by Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway New York, NY 10036

Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton

In these first two novels by Jane Hamilton, one finds the birth and development of a strong and unique voice in fiction. The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World are linked by many characters, themes and ideas, but each book has its own distinct personality. In both of her novels, Jane Hamilton has created women who are far from perfect--their flaws are made painfully apparent--but who discover in themselves great reserves of strength. Although the physical landscape they inhabit (an important factor in both novels) is 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.

The Book of Ruth is told from the perspective of a simple, naive woman--in describing the events of her life she 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 the relationships in this novel are perhaps even more complex than they are in The Book of Ruth.

Despite the stylistic differences between these two novels, what remains consistent is Hamilton's ability to convey the emotional lives of her characters with clarity and resonance. Ruth's and Alice's pain is palpable, and their joys are our rewards as well.

It is the express purpose of this guide to aid you in reading, discussing, and more fully enjoying these illuminating works. It provides you with new perspectives on the works and hopefully provides you with new avenues for your conversations.

About the Author

Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's magazine, and her first book, The Book of Ruth, was awarded the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel.

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 naiveté? 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 so 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

8) 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?

9) 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?

10) Do you trust Alice and Howard's versions of the events of the novel? What do you imagine they must really seem like to the people around them?

11) 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?

12) What do we learn about Alice from her interaction with the other prisoners? What does she learn about herself?

13) At the point in 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?

14) Do you feel as though things are resolved at the end of the novel?

15) Which character in the novel do you respond to the most?

16) Both novels focus on a trio of characters--a triangle of sorts (Ruth, Ruby and May in The Book of Ruth; Alice, Howard and Theresa in A Map of the World). Do these triangles have any dynamics in common? What function does the character outside the marriage serve in each triangle?

17) 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 for Alice?

18) How do you see the development of Hamilton's style between the two novels?

19) How would you describe the world of Jane Hamilton's novels? Is it particularly just or unjust? Does it strike you as realistic?

More Recommended Reading

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)