Jane Hamilton’s ‘The Excellent Lombards’ Examines Changing Way Of Life
Author Jane Hamilton’s latest book, The Excellent Lombards, examines big questions facing a Wisconsin farm family as they prepare for the future. Hamilton says that the novel is in part inspired by her own family’s experience with the change nature of rural life.
Jane Hamilton has written a number of acclaimed novels over the last 28 years. Her books tackle issues of mental illness, how parents cope with the loss of a child, and sexuality. Hamilton lives on an apple orchard in rural Wisconsin, the kind of place you might imagine offers the solitude necessary to be a novelist.
She says that she wasn’t really interested in incorporating her life there into her own work--until she was faced with the inevitable.
“I was told by an agent that I should write a book that used the material of my life living on a farm as a point of departure," Hamilton says. "I had said to her, ‘Well, I really can’t use that material until the friends and relatives involved are dead.’ She said, ‘Well, you’ll be dead, too.’”
So Hamilton set about writing The Excellent Lombards, a novel about a family living on an apple orchard in rural Wisconsin. It is about many things, including the passing of generations and the changing nature of country life at the end of the last century. Hamilton set the novel in the 1990s, in the unhurried days before cell phones and the Internet became part of everyday life.
“These children who are growing up on the apple orchard are free. It was free to be back in that time that now seems like an idyll because they were untethered and they had what I think of as a real childhood," she says.
One of the struggles for the Lombards is how to deal with an outside world that slowly transforms the life the family has created.
“It was important to me because I wanted to talk about the issue of succession. Who gets to stay? Who can’t stay? Who stays but isn’t equipped to stay?" Hamilton says. "There is this sense of this being a bubble. And through the course of the novel the world is intruding all the time in various ways.”
Hamilton adds that she knew she wanted to write a novel that spanned generations, but not the kind of family drama that can be spread out across multiple volumes. Enter her protagonist, the young Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard: It is through her eyes that we see the story of the family and transformation their world undergoes.
Hamilton tells the story in a succinct fashion, though the narrative never seems hurried. She says that the germ of Frankie came from a character in another novel.
“I read A Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which features a heroine who’s 12 who’s named Frances. She is so fierce. I’m not sure that book could be published today because she’s really deranged. She stabs the African-American housekeeper with a knife in the kitchen. It’s not a fatal wound but I think high school students reading that book today would say, ‘Where are her meds?’" Hamilton says. "I knew that I wanted some of that fierce girl’s DNA in my Mary Frances, so I was certainly thinking of that book and that character as I went along.”
Hamilton says that having a young person at the center of the novel allowed her to explore emotional dynamics that adult characters don’t often have.
“I love writing children and teenagers because of that tension that they have in them. They feel all-powerful and at the same time they know that they are deeply vulnerable and without power. So that tension creates a really interesting space to explore as a writer," she says.
Although children figure prominently in The Excellent Lombards, Hamilton knows that the novel is not one intended solely for young adults, and yet she believes it’s one that they can enjoy just as much as their parents do.
“To me it feels like an adult book because the narrator is narrating it past the point of childhood and she is bringing her adult sensibility to the narrative," she says. "It’s not that there’s adult content, but she has an understanding of the world that is past her young adult self or her childish self.”
The changing nature of the rural life isn’t a topic that’s isolated to Hamilton’s new novel. She points out that her home is in one of Wisconsin’s most rapidly growing counties.
“That’s been an issue that’s important to our farming family and the farming families around us. How suburbanized can the place get? And how can we hold out under those circumstances?" Hamilton says. "That’s something that’s been a question for rural communities throughout the land. It’s not something that’s resolved. It’s in process.”
Hamilton appears at Watermark Books this evening.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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