Growing up is hard to do

Jane Hamilton
Jane Hamilton

Every family has a cast of characters — some more memorable than others — but Mary Frances Lombard’s familial cup runneth over.

Mary Francis, known as Frankie to friends and family, is at the center of Jane Hamilton’s latest novel, The Excellent Lombards, a story about family and growing up. Hamilton will visit Wilton Library on Tuesday, April 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Books will be available for purchase and signing, courtesy of Elm Street Books in New Canaan. The event is free, and registration is highly recommended. Call 203-762-6334 or visit www.wiltonlibrary.org.

The Lombards are the third generation — Frankie and her brother William would be the fourth generation — to farm a Wisconsin apple orchard. It is a place and a life Frankie fiercely loves, but as a young girl of 11 when the book opens, she is unsure of her future there. She overhears her parents arguing about inheritance. Her father and his cousin Sherwood inherited the farm, and her father is considering leaving his half to his cousin, rather than to Frankie and William, which infuriates her mother. There is another family member — May Hill — who figures into the equation. A cast of colorful characters is introduced as the story, told from Frankie’s point of view, unfolds over several years.

Like Frankie, Hamilton lives on a Wisconsin apple orchard. She has lived there since 1979.

“It’s a very compelling place and a family business,” she told The Bulletin last week. “I had been thinking for years how to fictionalize that very rich material.”

Explaining that her husband is of the third generation to run the orchard, she observed, “I could have written a three-generational saga, but I wanted to write a poem rather than an epic. I put the issues of succession in Mary Frances to distill the issues I’ve been thinking about.”

And while Hamilton drew on her own experiences at the farm and with her family “to blow on that tinder to make the flame of fiction,” she stressed that the story is just that — fiction.

She did acknowledge that setting the story on a farm amplified the family dynamics.

“I’m sure running a restaurant or having a family grocery … there are different pressures in those businesses,” she said. But with a farm, “you are at the mercy of the weather, there is backbreaking toil and not a lot of money circulating. All of that adds to the usual pressures of being in business with any person. It intensifies the relationship dynamics. Then, when you have long-held animosities of relatives that carry through the generations, it makes it very interesting.”

Pre-technology

The story is set in the late 80s for good reason, Hamilton said.

“I love, love the fact that I could work with children at a time that was pre-cell phone, when they were truly free,” Hamilton said. “I also wanted to have the advent of the home computer come into it. Mary Frances is so concerned with keeping her tiny world, I had to have outside aspects encroach upon it.” She also had Frankie’s brother be the one completely absorbed with the new technology.

“It was important to have William to have the portal to the wider universe,” she said.

“I was just teaching some 18- to 20-year-olds and it was sobering they don’t remember a time without their phones,” she added.

Universality

Just as she wanted to focus on children from a less complicated time, Hamilton wanted to get away from the “dystopian novel” of today.

“I just wanted to return to a really simple, basic problem the novel is equipped to deal with,” she said. “You have to grow up. You have to leave your family behind or the family will leave you behind.

“I don’t know if the family farm has universal implications, but in any family business are questions of who stays, who can’t stay, who isn’t equipped to stay, who has the power. It all has implications.”

Hamilton is also author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, but having written them did not make writing The Excellent Lombards any easier.

“Every book I’ve written has different demands,” she said. Just because you’ve written one book doesn’t mean “you know how to do it. That is not true. Nothing you’ve done before prepares you for the thing ahead.”

Some books, she said, “seem to write themselves. That’s the rare, beautiful, golden way it works.” The Excellent Lombards, by contrast, underwent many rewrites over the course of 15 years. “I had a plot but I had to scrape away at it,” she said, until she found “it was this girl who had to grow up.

“I know the last line,” she said of the process. “I know the beginning. Filling in the middle is the challenge. Articulating the clear conflict in a novel is a challenge.

“When things are character- driven, for many writers there’s much more unknown and confusion in the process. But I also think you can’t know what you’ve made until you’ve made it.”

Her visit here

When Hamilton visits Wilton Library, she said, she has several things she would like to discuss.

“I want to talk about book clubs and what book clubs have meant to me,” she said. “I want to urge 30-somethings to start book clubs.”

She also wants to talk about cultural appropriation, a hot topic in literature today. As an example of what she meant she said, “This material of the family orchard, which is something I have lived, also belongs to other members of my family. It’s dicey to use what belongs to others.”

When asked if she enjoys interacting with her readers, she said, “Yes, it’s amazing. Oh, my gosh, oftentimes, especially with books I wrote a long time ago, they will say illuminating things. … That readers have read so carefully, that’s amazing. Who gets that? It’s a remarkable experience.”

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