Jane Hamilton – When Madeline Was Young
This is about Jane Hamilton’s “When Madeline Was Young” but this starts with the arrival of a box at our house, just a few days after I finished the book. The box was hefty. The return address indicated it was from Linda, who was married to my brother before he died a couple years ago. She was recently going through some of his things and found some old books of mine-books I must have given to David. She assumed I wanted them back.
Most were children’s books (“Sky Pioneers-The Story of Wilbur and Orville Wright,” “The Real Mother Goose,” “Hans Brinker,” and two early editions of Dr. Seuss classics, “Thidwick” and “McElligot’s Pool.”) Also included were two beautiful, small hardbacks: “Walden” and just “Thoreau.”
Also in the box were some pictures, including some of my parents as a young couple. There was one I’d never seen-or don’t remember-of my mother in her wedding dress. Her head is down and she’s smiling. She’s being escorted along a sidewalk or maybe on the way up to a church by my father. He is wearing a sharp white suit. The photo I’ve included below is of my parents at some formal event and they were, clearly, out and about. Believe me, this was a rare event.
What was amazing to me about looking at them in this photo was that I suddenly realized how much my parents would have had in common with Aaron and Julia Maciver, Jane Hamilton’s core characters in “When Madeline Was Young.”
Like Aaron and Julia, my parents lived the heart of their lives in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, though the Macivers got to live much longer. Also like the Macivers, my parents were just flat-out nice people. It wasn’t something they had to work hard at, it was just who they were. They worked, they read, they raised three boys. They would occasionally invite friends over. They never pushed too hard at life. They let it come to them. They succeeded because they studied hard at school, they were thrifty (my mother charted every single penny that went out the door, writing the expenses in a journal by hand) and they were good to people. My father’s approach to life was summed up with one of his little sayings, “to have a good time, give a good time.” They didn’t drink, they didn’t “party.” They played bridge, drank tea, cleaned the house and helped us with homework. My father repaired as many things as he could by himself. We built a bomb shelter with concrete blocks in the basement of one house. We chopped wood by hand at another.
The “problem” that confronts Aaron and Julia Maciver is the core of “When Madeline Was Young.” The “problem” is that Aaron’s first wife, Madeline, has a bicycle accident and is left with permanent brain damage and the mental capacity of a seven-year-old. So, Aaron marries Julia and together they raise Madeline as one of their daughters (essentially) and provide the best care they know how.
The key word in the title is “when.” It’s about Madeline, yes, but it’s also about when she was young. And she was young for a very long time.
If you describe the premise of “When Madeline Was Young” you would likely focus on Madeline and the fact that a woman is first a wife and then, essentially, daughter. But the book is told through the eyes of the son of the woman who replaces Madeline and so it’s really his book and he is mainly focused on the values of his parents and what prompted them to act and shift their lives the way they did and, as a result, how those values are manifested in Mac (the son).
“When Madeline Is Young” is full of possibilities for mentions of the “whimsy of fate,” as Mac puts it. Indeed, if it weren’t for Madeline’s bicycle accident, Mac wouldn’t exist.
But Hamilton’s touch is light and deft. She doesn’t club you over the head (sort of like the Macivers). The writing is sharp, not showy. The Kennedy clan is “a nation unto themselves.” Tessa is introduced as a woman who is always taking the “full measure” of new people she meets so its “best to clear your head of all insincerity” when introduced. The early chapters take place when families weren’t so “pharmaceutically girded” to deal with mental health issues.
The foil is Miss Figgy, a brilliant character and counter-punch to the Macivers. The family grows up and events telescope back and forth over time, with political discussions and real fighting at Kent State, in Vietnam and then Iraq (both wars). The war and politics are backdrops and vital to the foreground action. War ultimately comes home, of course, and the funeral scene and post-service conversations between Mac and Buddy (Figgy’s husband) are brilliant. In some ways “When Madeline Was Young” is one of the best war books ever written with any in-the-war moments in it.
This book is about Madeline, but it’s really about Mac’s parents-Aaron and Julia Maciver-and their calm approach to life. They are the ones that prompt Mac’s evaluation of his values, his surroundings, his siblings, his relationships. Mac’s parents raise the bar and challenge all around them. They are the ones adding certainty and order to a messy world.
So, in fact, did my parents.
Thanks to Jane Hamilton for accomplishing a rare feat in modern fiction-capturing an upbeat, successful, straightforward couple with strong, core values.