Reading: An Urban Expatriate | Essay | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Essay

Reading: An Urban Expatriate

Jane Hamilton, who grew up in Oak Park and settled in southeast Wisconsin, takes the rural midwest out of its Norman Rockwell frame.

by

comment

Something changed for me the day I walked into a certain crossroads country store on the way to my own country place in Wisconsin's deeply rural Iowa County. I had long been both charmed and fascinated by the store's existence in this remote, picturesque area of rolling cornfields and pasture along a ridge overlooking the wild terrain of Governor Dodge State Park. It's a small, white clapboard building in need of paint, with a weatherbeaten sign in front that doesn't exactly beckon to passersby. Still, I had always wondered what was inside, and that Sunday afternoon, wanting to call ahead to a friend, I pulled over.

I knew I'd made a mistake as soon as I opened the door.

The ripe odor of cats assaulted me first, a scent so pervasive I couldn't be sure it wasn't coming from the floor instead of a litter box. The room was windowless and dark, lit mainly by the glow of a color television tuned to Wide World of Sports. The place looked more like somebody's living room than a store, cluttered with sagging sofas and chairs. There was a counter near the entrance and a refrigerator case toward the back, but I wasn't there long enough to focus on the exact nature of the merchandise.

"Do you have a pay phone?" I asked the burly man standing near the door.

"That's the owner," he shrugged indifferently, pointing toward the only other occupant of the room, a squat, dark-haired woman with her nose in the television.

"Do you have a pay phone?" I repeated for her benefit.

"No," she barked harshly, turning away from the TV just long enough for me to glimpse her cheerless, grizzled face.

"Well, thanks anyway," I called sweetly and skipped the hell out of there, grateful my call wasn't an emergency.

The view will never be the same for me when I drive past the little store; all my idyllic illusions of it are shattered. It's not that I will love the Wisconsin countryside less; it is, after all, one of the big reasons I moved to Madison after more than 20 years in Chicago, and one of the factors that holds me here. It's just that my foray into the store made the picture rounder, reminded me of an underside of Wisconsin rural life I prefer to fantasize away.

Jane Hamilton, one of my favorite contemporary writers, coming into national acclaim for her new novel, A Map of the World, has the brilliant ability to do the same thing. She takes the rural midwest out of its Norman Rockwell frame and paints the picture grimmer, gives it dark textures and depth, all the while making it clear that she doesn't love the countryside or its people less.

In 1988's The Book of Ruth, which won the prestigious PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for first novel, Hamilton ushers the reader into the run-down, luckless lives of a rural Illinois family living within spitting distance of the Wisconsin border. The story quietly unfolds into a shocking tale of domestic violence, the germ of it inspired by an actual incident. Hamilton sets it in fictional Honey Creek, a speck of a town, the type of place urban passersby label "charming" as they blithely speed by. But Hamilton never lets the reader view it as one-dimensional. Even before she takes us inside the decrepit farmhouse where the three main characters live in psychological, if not physical, squalor, she shows us the town--through narrator Ruth's eyes--as a bare-bones refuge for people too timid or old to venture into the wider world. The river for which the town is named is black with mud and farmers' chemicals. There's a store that "doesn't have anything useful except beer and milk, toothpaste and potato chips"; a post office alongside which a tethered dog moans at church bells all day; and a cinder block factory that doesn't provide enough jobs to support even the half of the inhabitants still young enough to work.

There are a few houses in town, heavy plastic forever over the windows to shield against winter winds, and a pickup truck in every yard. The house where tragedy unfolds for Ruth, her mother, May, and husband, Ruby, is deeply rural, though just a half-mile outside of town. Once part of a thriving farm, it's now just a garden and a few chickens. Ruth and May scratch out a subsistence living at the dry cleaner's in nearby Stillwater. Drug-crazed Ruby is unemployable.

It's not that Hamilton is saying that rural life is bad, or worse than urban living. She is merely portraying the lives of people in it without the starry eyes or condescending attitude city people often acquire when they are only visiting. In The Book of Ruth she paints a rich, honest picture of a beautiful land threatened by pollution and vanishing farmers, of a people endangered by poverty and alienation. In both Ruth and A Map of the World she also probes the stifling, sometimes sinister nature of life in a place where everyone knows--or decides--what you are, and won't let you change.

Perhaps Hamilton evokes such a rich sense of place because she both knows the world of which she writes and knows what it is not. She is an urban expatriate. Raised in suburban Oak Park, she settled on a Wisconsin apple farm soon after graduation from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She was on her way to a publishing job in New York City when she visited a friend at a farm in Racine County. The visit kept getting longer, and she eventually married one of the orchard's owners, Robert Willard.

"Every time I thought about living in New York when I was in college, I got a stomach ache," Hamilton told People magazine in a May interview, suggesting that she had been ripe all along for a transplant to quiet Wisconsin.

Sense of place, of course, finds a writer more than he or she finds it. Often it is acquired early on, based simply on where a writer is born or on the haunting circumstances of childhood. When it arrives later in life, the writer has the advantage of looking at a place with the fresh and curious eye of a newcomer, appreciating its gifts, recognizing its shortcomings in contrast to what was or was not found elsewhere. Speaking again as a onetime Chicagoan, I have to say I am always impressed all over again whenever I visit the city, by the cafes and restaurants, the theater and other culture, the wonderful ethnic and racial diversity. But it's the physical limitations I would find difficult to go back to--the tiny shared balconies and porches; the preponderance of cement, brick, and noise; the inaccessibility to the countryside; the fact that I would never, never see a deer scramble up my front lawn, as I did recently in Madison. There is also a more relaxed way of life I would miss. I admit it took a while to get used to making small talk with bank tellers, but there's an unguarded informality here I like; there's more face-to-face contact with friends; people's schedules are less rigid.

It's all these things and more that Hamilton is aware of as she portrays life in the beautiful natural landscape that has become part of her thoughts and feelings. Particularly in the new book, she deals with the gradual ebbing away of rural life, due to what some people call progress and what Hamilton's protagonists deem poor urban planning.

A Map of the World is the story of Alice and Howard Goodwin, city people, who by dint of scrimping and borrowing and Alice's part-time nursing job have realized Howard's lifelong dream. They own a dairy farm, the last dairy farm in the area in fact, near a fictionalized farm community in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, where Hamilton actually lives. The town was called Prairie Junction when the Goodwins first bought the place; it has been renamed Prairie Center now that it has its own steel-and-glass greyhound racetrack and the booming business and residential growth that comes with such an attraction. The locals refer to the town by either name, a telling example of the sense of placelessness rampant expansion creates.

The Goodwins experience the underside of uncontrolled growth, their farm encroached on from all sides by suburban housing tracts where other dairy farms once stood. Roaming dogs plunder their chicken coop, and the neighbors complain about the smell of manure. Traffic noises and bright lights shatter their tranquillity. Howard makes blinders out of his hands when he goes outside at night so he can still know what true darkness looks like.

Their rural paradise thus souring like bad milk, the Goodwins' lives themselves begin to curdle. The family's fall from grace begins when a friend's child under Alice's care drowns in the farm pond. Stressed by the demands of dealing with her own two small girls, Alice had paused a moment too long to look over something she'd come across in a drawer that morning: a crayon map of the world she'd drawn as a lonely child. While she is upstairs ruminating over the perfect world she created, two-year-old Lizzie runs out the kitchen door and down the lane to the pond.

Alice blames herself. Already an outspoken, emotionally volatile person, she becomes unhinged. She flees, panic-stricken, from the funeral, and bursts into uncontrollable laughter at a school board meeting where her nursing contract is up for review. A few days later she is arrested on probable cause and bail is set higher than the couple can afford: a troubled child has accused her of sexual abuse, and more children have come forward with frightening stories that the whole town appears ready to believe.

Hamilton makes it clear that it is not just Alice's delicate psychological state after Lizzie's death that makes her susceptible to a witch-hunt. The Goodwins are outsiders in Prairie Center under normal circumstances. They bought a farm that had been in someone else's family for several generations; they have urban sensibilities, poetic eccentricities; Howard raises Golden Guernseys, Alice says, "because he both liked their color and the way 'Golden Guernsey' floated off his tongue." The locals labeled them "that hippie couple" from the start, took to ignoring them the summer an African American friend visited for two months.

One reviewer of A Map of the World has complained that because the story is told entirely from either Alice's or Howard's point of view, the reader does not see the Goodwins as "different" enough to warrant the town's disapproval. It was not a problem for me. I lived in a 4,000-person Wisconsin town for several months before settling in Madison, and I know what Alice means when she supposes that the couple's life in Prairie Center was "outside the bounds of the collective imagination."

There was an occasion the summer I stayed in this town when a young African American man was playing with the small son of a white friend in her backyard. He was shooting a squirt gun at the boy. All the neighbors within sight of the yard called the police, who arrived en masse and wrestled the man to the ground. Word of the incident reached a Madison newspaper columnist and he wrote about it in the Capital Times. When I mentioned the article to the man I was staying with, he snapped back that the neighbors had done the right thing, that the police action had been justified. Then he muttered something about those "radical liberals" in Madison.

There is a mind-set in small towns through which many people convince themselves they are safe from crime and drugs, from disintegration of the family and other values they hold dear, simply by virtue of living far away from big cities and the heterogeneous demographics and ideas there. It's not a mind-set, by the way, that is limited to Wisconsin; it could also account for the way Winnetka police went after "international terrorists" in a shocking murder case some years back, diverting their attention from a local youth who was the real perpetrator.

It is a mind-set that makes suspect anyone who deviates in any way from collective expectations. I can still remember wanting to flee my small-town hairdresser's shop when she raised her eyebrows as she snipped: "You mean the man I saw you with the other day is your boyfriend, but he's not the man you're living with." Toss in a few extenuating circumstances, and it's not surprising that the townspeople are ready to crucify Alice at the testimony of a few frightened kids.

Hamilton is not saying sexual abuse isn't a serious problem. She is bravely suggesting--as she probes the need people have for scapegoats--that it's possible to be falsely accused. And that once accused, under the right set of unfortunate circumstances, there is little one can do to save oneself. Hamilton has acknowledged that this aspect of the plot was inspired by two abuse cases involving day-care workers elsewhere in the country, each of which on close examination suggests the makings of a witch-hunt.

There are three essential levels of place in A Map of the World--the farm, the fictional town of Prairie Center, and the city of Racine, where Alice is incarcerated while awaiting trial. As Hamilton probes the point at which the Goodwins' seemingly placid life begins to disintegrate, these places seem to telescope out from one another, becoming weighty reminders of the distance the family stands to fall.

The farm is their sanctuary, their Eden, and now, no matter how the trial turns out, a tranquillity they will have to fight to maintain. The house, in disrepair outside and in long before their troubles begin, says something about the ordinary stresses of farm life. But the barn is immaculate, and the property itself is a lovely 400 acres of rolling fields, forest, apple orchard, marsh, and pond, where in happier times Alice and Howard skinny-dipped at night with abandon.

The changing town around them repels the Goodwins; it is neither rural nor urban. From their own hilly woods and oat fields they scan "garage doors painted with iridescent geese flying off to a better land, and black satellite dishes standing like lunar ornamental shrubs." The Goodwins laugh at the look-alike housing tracts with covered bridges and streets named after New England states. It is a copycat landscape devoid of poetry or whimsy, and they want to believe it can't swallow them.

In his turn as narrator of the book, Howard describes Racine as a good, solid place, one the self-sufficient Goodwins would ordinarily have little occasion to visit. "It's a modest town," he says, "a little run down, a city where people don't seem to feel any need to put on airs. There's a high school named after William Horlick, the guy who invented powdered milk. They have a good library, a zoo, a couple of fine hospitals, a Frank Lloyd Wright creation . . . that looks like an unidentified flying object. They have Johnson Wax, fresh Kringle, and Lake Michigan."

Alice and Howard made a pilgrimage once, he recalls, to a section of Racine where Woodland Indians grew corn before the time of Christ, and he was discouraged by the seedy houses and the litter. This time he is visiting the courthouse, a "monolithic gray slab . . . with no charm or grace," yet as inevitable as a "Porta Potti in the middle of a forest preserve."

The courthouse, of course, and the overcrowded jail across the street where Alice languishes in Day-Glo orange shirts and pants, are the ultimate examples of the sameness and degradation from which the farm is refuge. "The grease ant has more color and variation than did our pod on the fourth floor," Alice says. "Everyone ate the same food, and had the same space under the unrelenting sameness of the fluorescent lights. It was the small things I sometimes let myself mourn for: sunshine; shadow; the dark of a country night; the thick, hot air of summer."

It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see the similarity between Alice's description of her quarters and the confines of modular office space. And, taking it one step further, to consider the loss there would be for all of us if there were no more rural escapes, no escape from blandness, from regimented sameness.

"The farm is the first place I ever felt safe and alive, and--oh Christ--real, and at home," Alice shrieks to Howard over the prison phone during visiting hours.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Hamilton--because she writes so well of midwestern rural life--as a regional writer. To do so reflects that small-town need in all of us to label and classify people, things, art, as if in so doing we can better understand them. Hamilton evokes a rich sense of place in all her work, but this only adds texture and depth to the larger themes and issues she is probing. In The Book of Ruth she reexamines and reenvisions the Old Testament story of Ruth, a story of love and compassion under trying circumstances. She probes the underside of family life, love, and spirituality in both books, betrayal and loss of innocence.

She balances the pain and darkness with a poignant, beautifully evoked prose that is flecked with humor. Her characters are always fully and compassionately drawn. Particularly memorable are Alice's prison mates--hopeless, hardened, scornful young women whom Alice admires for their ability to survive under insurmountable odds, their ability to cut through the bullshit.

Alice actually internalizes these women; during the trial their voices penetrate her thoughts. After her lawyer makes mincemeat out of her six-year-old chief accuser, Alice imagines Dyshett, the most derisive of her cellmates, saying: "I'd walk down the street lookin' at ch'you, Mr. Raff-er-ty, thinkin' you was a smart-ass lawyer, but you nothin' but some kind of pop-eyed, mangy, half-breed dog, rippin' that boy limb from limb, chewin' him up, spittin' him out, and then you expect us to study what's all over the floor and say, 'Yes, sir, that pile of shit is a boy.'"

A writer can't get more compassionate.

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton, Doubleday, $22

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Anchor Books, $8.95

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.

Add a comment