In a patch of Wisconsin woods, late on a summer afternoon, two women stand a few feet apart, each leaning her back against a tree and swatting mosquitoes. They face the same direction; neither looks at the other. They were best friends but Alice had a moment of distraction while minding Theresa's baby, Lizzie, and the child wandered off and drowned in the farm pond. Now, days later, Alice is almost mute while Theresa talks wildly, trivially, unstoppably: a frozen swimmer and a thrashing swimmer in a pond of bottomless pain.
Still thrashing, Theresa relates her visit to a former priest who was her high school teacher and whom she once had a crush on. Albert--married, divorced and grown fat--took her to a luncheonette for Cherry Cokes. Insistently, he made her tell the entire story of her 2-year-old daughter's life, and write down each of the 57 words she had mastered. By the time Theresa finished, she realized that what Lizzie had was not a fragment of a life but an entire one, though short. She and Albert--now weeping for the child he has helped make real--began to rock "just hard enough so that one edge of the booth came up like a swing set will, you know, that isn't grounded in cement?"
Still frozen, Alice thinks: "Theresa was going to talk at high speed through the seasons, through the rain and sleet and snow, until she was briny and then moss covered."
It is not the Job-like accumulation of scourges upon Alice Goodwin and her farmer husband, Howard, that makes Jane Hamilton's second novel remarkable. Not that the scourges are trivial. There could be no more terrible combination of agony and shame than to know that a moment of absent-mindedness has allowed the death of a friend's child. Or than to be arrested and charged immediately afterward--as Alice is--with sexually abusing children at the school where she works as a nurse.
Indeed, the accumulation--the neighbors turn bitterly vindictive, the Goodwin's children are traumatized and Howard loses the farm that has been his life's dream--is as melodramatic and arbitrary as a soap opera. But then, so was Job's story ( boils , yet?). It is not the particular blows of providence that exalt the Old Testament story, but a man's voice protesting the pain of our cosmic vulnerability. In "A Map of the World," it is not the buildup of the two tragedies that is most distinctive--the events are told with brilliant horror but their sequence and linkages can be awkward--it is the different calligraphies they inscribe on Alice, Howard and Theresa.
Some of the same horror is at the root of Sue Miller's "The Good Mother" (a woman's lover is accused of sexually abusing her daughter) and Rosellen Brown's "Before and After" (a family is shattered when a teen-age son is charged with murder). All three show how the outside world--society, the law--can make our privacies public and unrecognizable to ourselves. Or as Howard muses at one point: "I was dazed by the equation that overnight made Alice's troubles into everyone's troubles."
The difference is the voices. Theresa's out of the circle of trees: wandering, coming apart and coming together to relate a remarkable deliverance by a fat man in a luncheonette booth; remarkable, among other things, for being both a near-miracle and entirely natural. Alice's, frozen in shame as well as grief--and in her own knotted nature--raging at Theresa's. This is only one example; throughout, "A Map of the World" will suddenly alter its light, revealing beneath the fabric of its characters' lives, thoughts and emotions a kind of X-ray of their souls.
The story is told alternately by Alice and Howard. Alice begins with an account of a precarious idyll. She and Howard, former hippies, more or less, have bought a farm in a transitional area. Suburbs are encroaching; the old-style rural community of Howard's dreams no longer quite exists. Instead of helping with the haying, the neighbors are more likely to get up petitions about the farm's noise, smells and effect on property values.
For Howard, a dairy farm is heaven, down to its most menial and exhausting jobs. "I always thought that work was as common and fine as air," he will say. Alice can't quite submerge in his Arcadian dream; there is tension under the determinedly upbeat account of their life that starts the book off. Tension becomes horror the day Theresa leaves Lizzie with her. Hamilton slows the narrative to nightmare speed: Suddenly Lizzie is no longer in the room with her older sister and Alice's two children. She thinks of the pond, runs there on suddenly heavy legs, her bare feet "like two pink erasers." A pink gingham bottom bobs on the water's surface, 15 feet out.
Days of breakdown follow. Alice's account of her paralysis--she can't take care of the children, endure the funeral, visit Theresa or do much besides sleep; and Howard's patience turns to despair--is another nightmare. It ends, oddly enough, and she goes from lethargy to hyper-activity, when the second horror falls upon the first.
The police come and arrest her. A 9-year-old schoolboy, a problem child who at one point goaded her into slapping him, has reported that she fondled him. The account seems inspired and promoted by his dysfunctional, promiscuous mother; but a communal hysteria sets in. There are other complaints, a formal charge, months in prison--until Howard sells the farm to pay the exorbitant bail--and finally a trial that frees her into a life of utterly change and uncertain prospects.
Some of the story limps a bit. The courtroom scenes are compellingly taut, but not especially distinctive. Alice's eccentric lawyer is a grotesque that doesn't quite come off. He serves, though, to parody the processes of the law, and as part of Hamilton's questioning of the nature of present-day society. The dream of community is no longer viable; people live by fashion and slogans. The mere mention of abuse--in the absence of social ties and the ground-knowledge that they instill--is enough to set off a conflagration.
Such questions, though provocative, are no more the real heart of the book than the plot is, or the accomplished set scenes, among them a vivid account of Alice's time in jail, and of the brutal and sometimes compassionate social order set up by the inmates. Alice's harsh, illuminating vision--released from jail, she and Howard pass a wedding and she notes: "The bride had some teeth missing. Maybe she'll be covered by her husband's dental plan. Maybe she'll be able to get them fixed"--is a poetry of despair that turns, in a stunning final passage, into something like a chorale.
Howard's account of his time alone with the children as he struggles to keep his farm going, is only seemingly matter-of-fact. It is another kind of poetry, bucolic and sad. Theresa, passionate but purposeful--she and Howard fall in love and relinquish it in one single, powerfully erotic and entirely chaste movement--is a child of light. Her poetry is of a third order; like Eric Rohmer's films, its magic takes form from what is random, commonplace and disconnected.