Geography is not, strictly speaking, literary destiny. A New Yorker, sitting in a vista-free Big Apple apartment, could, theoretically, write an expansive novel set in the middle of America. (Those mainlanders would dress in black leather and eat dinner at 10 p.m., but still.) A real feel for the customs of the country, though, requires submersion in Midwestern dailiness.
Having Jane as a first name helps too. Jane Hamilton — who was raised in Oak Park, Ill., and lives in an orchard farmhouse near Racine, Wis. — pieces together details of American family life and paints small-scale, middle-American domestic tableaux that build in emotional intensity. (In her Oprah-certified best-seller, The Book of Ruth, family violence rises matter-of-factly, like bread in an oven.) Jane Smiley — who was born in L.A., grew up in St. Louis, and, until recently, lived and taught in Ames, Iowa — often likes to fit soft-spoken prose into an ambitious framework. (Her Pulitzer Prize winner, A Thousand Acres, parallels an Iowa farm family’s tragedies with those of King Lear.)
In their new novels, Jane and Jane, Hamilton and Smiley, exemplars of end-of-the-century feminine storytelling, once again work the land they love. But each, in her way, also tries something new.
Coming after Ruth and A Map of the World, which dealt with accusations of child molestation in a child-care center, The Short History of a Prince (Random House, $23) is more muted than Hamilton’s previous two books, less emotionally climactic, but nonetheless lovely in its appreciation of the resilience of family. The story toggles between 1972, when Walter McCloud is an Illinois teenager devoted to ballet (that prince in the title is the star of The Nutcracker) and obsessed with his own budding homosexual desires to the point of ignoring his older brother, Daniel, who is dying of cancer, and 1996, when Walter is a 38-year-old high school teacher still somewhat baffled by life. Back then, Walter was in love with Mitch, his ballet school’s best male dancer; Mitch was dating Susan, the class prima ballerina; Susan fell in love with Daniel; and around this pas de quatre, the extended McCloud corps de ballet — parents, aunts, neighbors, cousins — beat time steadily. (Hamilton was herself trained as a dancer.) Prince is a schematically boxy book, a bit too tightly choreographed; dialogue is often more declamatory than realistic. (It’s unlikely that Walter would fill his favorite aunt in on his life by declaring ”Everyone seemed most of the time to be dancing, singing, playing, acting love. Love! Then of course some of us began to get sick. We grew up or we died. None of us stayed the same.”) But Hamilton’s plainsong to American endurance still lifts the heart.
Jane Smiley, meanwhile, is too busy charging into history to dwell on the heart. In The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Knopf, $26), the high-stepping author (whose most recent novel, Moo, was a comedy set at a Midwestern university) imagines a fearless young Illinois bride who settles with her abolitionist husband in Kansas in 1855 and throws herself into the fight against slavery. Everything happens large for Lidie, and never more so than after her husband is murdered: She cuts off her hair, dresses butch, grabs a gun, and sets off to hunt down his killers. ”I saw at once that as long as I was a man, I would be able to do whatever I wanted, and that I would have a taste of freedom such as no woman I had known…had ever had,” she explains, in the old-fashioned, autobiographical style with which Smiley tells her tale. Such literary convention also explains why Lorna, an escaping slave who latches on to Lidie, speaks lines like ”Well, missy, ifn you don’ want me to speak my mine, don’ temp’ me.” The dialect may have historical integrity, but that don’ make it any easier for modern eyes and ears to take.
Smiley’s people don’t come alive in Lidie with anything approaching the thrill of A Thousand Acres or her earlier piercing works The Age of Love and Ordinary Love & Good Will. They will, however, no doubt look handsome on the TV screen, where they’ll soon turn up in a CBS miniseries. Of course, such a path to Hollywood is also as American as a field of wheat. Short History: B+ All-True Travels: B-