The Short History of a Prince

The Short History of a Prince

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by Jane Hamilton

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Walter McCloud is a boy with dreams unlike most. Introduced as a child to the genius of Balanchine and the lyricism of Tchaikovsky, Walter has always aspired to be a dancer. As he grows older, it becomes clear that despite his desire, he lacks the talent, and he faces the painful knowledge that his more gifted friends have already surpassed him.

Soon, however,


Walter McCloud is a boy with dreams unlike most. Introduced as a child to the genius of Balanchine and the lyricism of Tchaikovsky, Walter has always aspired to be a dancer. As he grows older, it becomes clear that despite his desire, he lacks the talent, and he faces the painful knowledge that his more gifted friends have already surpassed him.

Soon, however, that pain is overshadowed when his older brother, Daniel, finds a strange lump on his neck and Walter realizes that a happy family can change overnight. The year that follows transforms the McClouds, as they try to hold together in the face of the fearful consequences of Daniel's illness, and Walter makes discoveries about himself and his friendships that will change him forever.

Decades later, after Walter has left home and returned, he must come to terms with the memories of that year, and grapple once and for all with the challenge of carving out a place for himself in this all-too-familiar world.

A moving story of the torments of sexuality and the redemptive power of family and friendship, The Short History of a Prince confirms Jane Hamilton's place as a preeminent novelist of our time.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
...[A] lovely testament to the resilience of family.
New York Times Book Review
With intelligence and empathy — and drawing on rich veins of irony — Hamilton tells the story of Walter's search to define his once surprising and redemptive.
Boston Globe
Hamilton's third novel and arguably her best, for it matches its range of emotion with a technical precision both masterful and haunting.
Subtle, moving, and utterly convincing.
Library Journal
Adolescence always presents difficulties, but for a boy struggling with his sexual identity along with a fierce desire to be a ballet dancer, the pain can be intense. Written by Hamilton, best known for PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award winner The Book of Ruth (Audio Reviews, LJ 5/1/97) and for A Map of the World, this novel tells of Walter McCloud's growing up in the Midwest. Influenced by his artistic aunt who introduces him to classical music and the ballet, Walter discovers after a few years of study that he has little talent for the ballet. This realization brings severe disappointment since his talented best friends, Mitch and Susan, earn roles he covets. Amid all this turmoil Walter learns that his older brother Daniel is suffering from cancer. A skilled writer, Hamilton manages to convey the pain and loss in Walter's life, as well as the potential for hope and redemption through the love and support of friends and family. Robert Sean Leonard reads with sensitivity and conviction. The sound quality is excellent. Recommended for general collections.
— Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Christine Cassidy
...Hamilton has a deft touch when it comes to expression passion; she never oversttes her case, making the reader feel as entwined in the outcome of these events as the characters....The Short History of a Prince is ultimately about our responsibility as gay people to make amends, heal old hurts, and not reject our past lives no matter how humiliating. We can go home again. There are people waiting for us.
Lambda Book Report
I've always looked forward to new novels from Jane Hamilton, but I was particularly interested in The Short History of a Prince. I'd heard it was about a young aspirant to the rigorous, baffling, self-contained world of ballet, a promising setup.

The "prince" of the novel, however, turns out to be Walter McCloud, 38 as the book opens and with his dancing years long behind him. Returning to Wisconsin after an aimless decade or so in New York City, he intends to teach English to the freshmen of Otten High, not far from his family's place at Lake Margaret. The story alternates between the present, in which Walter must figure out what the hell he wants to do with the rest of his life, and 1972-73, the year he gave up dancing and his older brother Daniel died of cancer.

Walter is an appealing character: smart, energetic and determined. Gay and single, a generous snob, he is prone to fits of despair but is more or less at peace with himself. Perhaps, in fact, he's too good to be true — as though the author, writing so closely from the point of view of someone from a minority group of which she is not a member, felt compelled to give him too much benefit of the doubt. Yet at least he is reasonably complicated, as many of the other characters in this book (the dying brother, the witchy aunt with the heart of gold, the cruel and beautiful first love) are not.

There is some ballet in the novel, but Hamilton's emphasis is on the more familiar topics of love and loss and coming to terms with the past. The novel treats these subjects intelligently, but there's more meditation here than drama. The questions of whether Walter's family will lose Lake Margaret, whether Walter will have enough courage to pursue a liaison with a handsome poet, whether or not he'll win over his seventh-period English class, are not pressing enough to pull you through. The family place is often the setting, and while the rambling house and sparkling water sustain Walter, Lake Margaret is not conveyed sufficiently evocatively to do the same for us.

What does sustain us is Walter's considerable energy, and his appealing sensibility. Each page is interesting insofar as his thoughts and perceptions are interesting — sometimes less, often more. The most memorable parts are when he dances, particularly his tragicomic stint as the Prince in the Rockford Ballet's amateurish production of the Nutcracker. It is in moments like these, when Walter's life is at its most unfamiliar, that the book comes most compellingly to life.
— March 31, 1998

The Boston Globe
Hamilton's third novel and arguably her best, for it matches its range of emotion with a technical precision both masterful and haunting.
San Francisco Chronicle
Jane Hamilton has removed all doubt that she belongs among the major writers of our time.
Kirkus Reviews
A meditative, slow-moving, and thoroughly absorbing family drama — about loving, losing, and holding on to all we can — from the author of (the Oprah-chosen) The Book of Ruth (1988) and A Map of the World (1994). The story's protagonist and primary viewpoint character is Walter McCloud, whom we observe (in alternating chapters) as a sensitive, bookish, and — he's quite sure — homosexual teenager growing up in an Illinois suburb in the early '70s among a trio of close friends and fellow ballet students, including beautiful Susan Claridge and her equally beautiful boyfriend (and Walter's sometime sexual partner), Mitch Anderson; and also 25 years later, when Walter, who has long since given up ballet, returns "home" to teach high-school English in Otten, Wisconsin, not far from the gorgeous lakeside summer place owned by his mother's family. It's a richly varied narrative, whose emotional high point is the lingering death from Hodgkin's disease (in 1973) of Walter's older brother Daniel (with whom Susan forms a surprisingly emotional intimate relationship, painfully reshuffling the trio's already complicated feelings for one another). Other losses, both threatened and endured, figure prominently: the likelihood that the frosty maiden aunt who had awakened Walter's aesthetic sense will force the sale of the family's beloved summer house; and Walter's burden of guilt over "his shameful relations with Mitch, his hateful feelings toward Susan, his indifference to his brother." Hamilton writes beautiful summary and descriptive sentences; unfortunately, though, Walter (who is, to be sure, presented as unusually intelligent and articulate) speaks in almostprecisely the same manner. This tendency toward formality creates a distance from the reader that is, however, vitiated by our genuine empathy with the novel's many vividly drawn characters (the inquisitive and querulous Mrs. Gamble is an especially memorable figure). Hamilton ends it with a beautiful coda that may remind readers of both Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood and James Agee's A Death in the Family. Like them, this is a lyrical, bighearted novel that won't easily be forgotten.

From the Publisher
"Irresistible...As [Hamilton] evokes the powerful grip of love, both young and mature, cruel and ecstatic, she reaffirms life."—People"Subtle, moving, and utterly convincing."—Newsweek"Lovely in its appreciation of the resilience of family—Hamilton's plainsong to American endurance still lifts the heart."—Entertainment Weekly"With intelligence and empathy—and drawing on rich veins of irony—Hamilton tells the story of Walter's search to define his talents—at once surprising and redemptive."—The New York Times Book Review"Hamilton's third novel and arguably her best, for it matches its range of emotion with a technical precision both masterful and haunting—Hamilton has eased time and memory throughout her novel with the expert abandon of a dancer in full pirouette."—Boston Globe"[Hamilton] can make real life riveting—There can be no better recommendation for a novelist."—Denver Post

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As it turned out there was so much baggage on the trip to Lake Margaret that Walter's friends, Susan and Mitch, sat crushed in one foldout seat in the back of the car, and Walter was left with the middle bench seat. Robert McCloud had arranged the two aquamarine coolers, the suitcases and the grocery bags. It wasn't for nothing, he said, that Joyce had been a Girl Scout: she was fully prepared for an ice age, a drought, a monsoon and the invasion of the termites. Walter was pinned against the door by the coolers, it was awkward to turn around, and he had to shout to be heard. The teenagers gave up talking after a few minutes on the expressway. Susan and Mitch fell asleep against each other. Nothing had gone according to plan, and Walter stared gloomily out the window. Just as well that Daniel was sick, he thought. If he'd come they'd have had to tie him to the roof rack.

Joyce glanced back now and then to make sure there was nothing unseemly going on between the two lovebirds in the kiddie seat. She gave her husband a preview of the day to come, quietly, and with restraint, evoking her hysterical sister. Even marking the gestures, not imitating them full out, was funny, and Robert snorted into his shirt and twice said, "Oh, Joycie."

She had enough sense not to ask Walter if he was all right. She could see that he was troubled about something, and he in his turn knew that she had taken note of his unhappiness. Her general sympathy brought him a guilty little pleasure. His thin skin and tender heart were at once a source of pride and anxiety to her. He had asked to study ballet, she had known better than to try to talk him out of it, and she had clung to the belief that his enthusiasm for the dance would shield him from the predictable taunts. It had been such a stroke of luck that his two dancing-school friends happened to live in Oak Ridge. They had been put together in the First Junior Class at the Kenton School of Ballet in Chicago when they were ten years old and together they'd advanced all the way up to the Second Intermediate Class. But through good and bad fortune Walter would always have his own temperament, and Joyce feared that he would feel the injuries of adolescence more keenly than his peers. Still, she hadn't given up on a straightforward future for him, and she wondered if it was Susan, if the leggy girl squeezing against Mitch, was the source of his present misery.

Her conclusion was not exactly off the mark. Walter was thinking about the night the week before, when he and Susan and Mitch had been in the McClouds' living room, dancing and listening to records. Walter had picked out Tchaikovsky's Serenade, a piece that had been their favorite since the previous summer. George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer in the history of the dance, according to Walter, had made a plotless ballet to the music, and Walter, in a tribute to both virtuosos, had the volume up so high that the Gamble dogs, in their yard, cocked their heads this way and that, hearing noises in a frequency Tchaikovsky never intended. The dancers rushed headlong in and out of the doors, running the length of the room with their arms outstretched, doing the bits of the Balanchine choreography they had absorbed over the years. Between the three of them they had seen eight performances of Serenade. Walter and his aunt Sue Rawson had seen it four times the month before, night after night at Ravinia Park.

Mitch was always the man, intermittently lifting Susan over his head and carrying her around like a barbell. It seemed to Walter that Mitch's strength was inherent, that it was a quality he had not had to work for, no need to lift weights or wrestle or play a lot of catch. It was just there, that strength, a part of him. There were few hard, fast, unstated rules to their dancing game, principles not to be broken or bent. They were meant for Walter. It was curious, he thought, that he understood the protocol instinctively, that no one had ever had to slap his wrist or say, Repeat after me. Funny, that it was the kind of thing he knew with animal sense. He was not allowed to lift Susan, but he could offer his arm if she wanted support for an arabesque. He was not to turn her; the pirouette business was also Mitch's privilege. Susan, however, could turn Walter, with good humor on both sides. He most certainly was not to attempt, even as a joke, to lift Mitch. But he could touch Mitch if, say, they were dancing in a circle, holding hands. Then they were comrades, the three of them. When they spun there was nearly an absence of possession.

Walter, in the first movement of Serenade, threw himself into the wind of the large fan on the dining-room table and struck a pose. He buffeted back and forth, in and out of the steady push of air. If only he had on one of the blue chiffon costumes that Balanchine's dancers wore, a gown that would flutter and billow after him. He was going full tilt--no one could say that he did not have enough feeling for the entire ensemble of twenty-eight girls. "Not having the blue dresses," he panted as he jetéed past Susan, "for this ballet, is probably on a par with riding a motorcycle and"--he called over his shoulder--"finding that it doesn't rev."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's magazine. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book Club. Her second novel,  A Map of the World, was an international bestseller.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Short History of a Prince 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book captures genuine emotion. As the novel progressed I got a real feeling of being in the places, both emotional and physical, the author describes. I will miss being part of Walter's (the prince) life. This book also flows better than some of the author's previous novels, so if you have enjoyed any of her others, you will certainly enjoy The Short History of A Prince
Guest More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book. Jane Hamilton writes with such vision. her words draw you into this book and don't let you go until the last page. She deals with real life issues head on and forces you look at yourself and how you deal with things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't get interest this book and cannot recommend.  
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