One Woman's Map of A Troubled World


By Jane Hamilton


390 pp., $22

JANE HAMILTON, author of ``The Book of Ruth,'' for which she received the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel, has written another engrossing, powerful book that should attract some much-deserved attention.

``A Map of the World'' is not an easy or light read; indeed, it takes on some of the toughest issues of modern life. But the writer's skill in describing a community and a way of life, as well as her insight into the hearts of her characters, render this story difficult to forget.

The title refers to a map of the world that the main character labored over after the death of her mother. As a girl, she would sit before the map, imagining herself ``in an ideal country, alone and at peace.''

By tackling such major themes as motherhood, death, love, and child abuse, Hamilton draws us her own map of the world, one devoid of safe havens. What we are left with, however, is a better understanding of the strength of the human heart and the power to rise above calamity.

Alice and Howard Goodwin live and work with their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, on the last dairy farm in Prairie Center, Wis., on the outskirts of Racine. Most of the tightknit community keeps its distance from the family, regarding them as displaced urban hippies.

Although he suspects that the family farm will soon be obsolete, Howard is unable to imagine any other way of life. ``I had wanted to spend my life caring for land, being a steward, and raising food.... Alice once said that most men must secretly want a barn, even city-dwelling men.''

Alice, who strives to be a proper farm wife and live up to Howard's expectations, constantly fears that she doesn't have the right instincts to be a good mother. Sometimes, when she leaves the girls with her best friend, Theresa, she runs home, ignores the ruin of her housekeeping and Howard's calls for assistance, and dances with abandon to Hungarian music in her bedroom with the shades drawn. Afterward, she can peacefully go out to pull weeds, drive the tractor, or make the family dinner.

One hot summer day, when it is Alice's turn to babysit for Theresa's two daughters, she becomes distracted looking over her map of the world. She is upstairs just long enough for Theresa's youngest child, Lizzy, to wander out to the farm's pond and drown.

While still reeling under the weight of guilt and grief, Alice is accused by another mother of having sexually abused her son. The vindictive woman expertly takes advantage of Alice's outcast status after Lizzy's death.

Soon, events spin out of control: Alice lingers in jail awaiting trial on charges of sexual abuse because Howard cannot raise bail; he and his daughters are shunned by the townspeople and lose all sense of normalcy in their lives; Theresa, struggling to come to grips with the death of her young child, is the only one able to rally around the sinking family.

``Sometimes people get so confused by how fast everything's moving they have to throw somebody out, to make them feel better. It could have been anyone, really,'' Alice realizes. Although Howard was always the stronger and more stable of the two, raised to work hard and keep in motion, it is Alice who learns about the durability of the human spirit in the stillness and tedium of jail.

Hamilton writes eloquently about land, nature, and the human heart. Yet a sense of spirituality pervades ``A Map of the World.'' Alice and Howard found shelter, love, and benevolence in a farmhouse; when their home was gone, they had to look higher to find forgiveness and understanding.

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