The Short History of a Prince

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Overview

Set in Jane Hamilton's signature Midwest, The Short History of a Prince is the story of Walter McCloud and his ambition to become a great ballet dancer. With compassion and humor, and alternating between Walter's adolescent and adult voices, the novel tells of Walter's heartbreak as he realizes that his passion cannot make up for the innate talent that he lacks. Introduced as a child to the genius of Balanchine and the lyricism of Tchaikovsky by his stern but cultured aunt Sue Rawson, Walter has dreamed of ...
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The Short History of a Prince

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Overview

Set in Jane Hamilton's signature Midwest, The Short History of a Prince is the story of Walter McCloud and his ambition to become a great ballet dancer. With compassion and humor, and alternating between Walter's adolescent and adult voices, the novel tells of Walter's heartbreak as he realizes that his passion cannot make up for the innate talent that he lacks. Introduced as a child to the genius of Balanchine and the lyricism of Tchaikovsky by his stern but cultured aunt Sue Rawson, Walter has dreamed of growing up to shine in the role of the Prince in The Nutcracker. But as Walter struggles with the limits of his own talent and faces the knowledge that Mitch and Susan, his more gifted friends, have already surpassed him, Daniel, his older brother, awakens one morning with a strange lump on his neck that leads to fearful consequences — and to Walter's realization that a happy family, and a son's place in it, can tragically change overnight. The year that follows will in fact transform the lives not only of the McClouds but also of Susan, who becomes deeply involved with the sick Daniel, and Mitch, the handsome and supremely talented dancer with whom Walter is desperately in love. Into this absorbing narrative Hamilton weaves a place of almost mythical healing, the family's summer home at Lake Margaret, Wisconsin, where for generations the clan has gathered on both happy and unhappy occasions.
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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 talents...at 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.
Newsweek
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
Library Journal
A superb novel by Wisconsin author Jane Hamilton, draws the reader into the lives of teenage Walter, who wants to become a dancer, and his best friends Mitch and Susan. Walter's family's summer place at Lake Margaret provides refuge in this story that moves from the 1970s to the 1990s. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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
Salon
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.
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 talents...at once surprising and redemptive.
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780783883434
  • Publisher: Cengage Gale
  • Publication date: 4/1/1998
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane Hamilton
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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Read an Excerpt

The McClouds were quiet on the way home. Walter and his friends were sunburned and woozy. Robert had slept through the catastrophe on the porch, slept through the noise of the two frightened babies and woken only when most of the guests had gone. He felt refreshed and ready to drive. It had been a hard day for Aunt Jeannie, and he personally was glad to have gotten through it. He was looking forward to Sunday, to some tennis early in the morning, and Daniel's swim meet in the afternoon. His wife was resting in the front seat next to him, and he did not disturb her. Joyce wasn't asleep but she kept her eyes closed, and her face turned to the window, to the hum of the August night. She thought she might just call Mrs. Gamble's son, Greg, when she got home. She might ask him if he would teach her this transcendental meditation business. She hadn't told Robert yet, but she'd had an upsetting conversation with Sue Rawson in the middle of the party. She was going
to need something in the coming months, an aid, her own little syllable, to calm her.

They drove up Maplewood Avenue. Most of the houses had a few lights on downstairs and, in the upstairs, the dim yellow glow that came from the children's night-lights. Their own house was black, the windows reflecting the streetlights, as if the place had no heat, no life, no center of its own. The Gambles' house was ablaze and the Missus herself was standing under the light on her front porch, her cigarette burning between her two fingers, her arms crossed, waiting. Waiting for them as
if they were truant children. She looked as if she was too mad to shout, too mad to curse; she looked as if she was going to take her time and whenshe was good and ready she'd whisper, she'd practically spit each word, Where--Have--You--Been?

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Interviews & Essays

On April 8th, 1998, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jane Hamilton to our Authors@aol series to discuss her latest novel, THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE. Jane Hamilton's first novel, THE BOOK OF RUTH, won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was selected by Oprah's Book Club. A MAP OF THE WORLD, her second novel, was an international bestseller. Her latest novel, THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE, is available at Keyword: bn.



JainBN: Welcome, Jane Hamilton!

Jane Hamilton: Thank you!


JainBN: Jane Hamilton is on the phone with us from Wisconsin. How's the weather out there? El Nino minding its own business?

Jane Hamilton: Seattle, actually. The weather is beautiful!


JainBN: I forgot! Seattle tonight. :)

Jane Hamilton: No problem!


JainBN: Jane, we have many, many questions, so if you're all set....

Jane Hamilton: I'm ready!


Question: The protagonists of both RUTH and PRINCE are relatively talentless individuals forced to cope with living in the shadows of more celebrated peers. Why does this dynamic interest you? Did this relationship exist in your own upbringing?

Jane Hamilton: First of all, I haven't thought of the books in relationship to each other, so it's interesting to hear readers talk about common themes. I was the type of girl who, like Walter, studied dance but had no talent.


Question: How would you describe the midwestern temperament?

Jane Hamilton: We're very polite and we're friendly in a reserved way. I would say that we're more conventional than people on either coast, in general.


Question: I finished THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE last night. It is the most wonderful book I've read in 50 years of reading. I'm speechless. How do you know so much about life?

Jane Hamilton: First of all, thank you! The great privilege of writing and being able to live other people's lives and learning from them -- most of what I know about life I've learned from my characters.


Question: Your novels seem ultimately to focus on very subtle transformations of your characters' psychology. Is this literary taste rooted in your background as a short story writer?

Jane Hamilton: I learned to write novels by starting out with short stories, but no novel is worth its salt if the characters aren't transformed from beginning to end.


Question: THE BOOK OF RUTH was an Oprah Book Club selection. Do you approve of the ascendancy Oprah has acquired over the life and death of midlist fiction?

Jane Hamilton: I think that anyone who can make television viewers pick up a book, read it, and have a momentary reverie is a good thing. She certainly does have an amazing amount of power, but she has used it in a very interesting and creative way.


Question: Was it difficult to put yourself in the mindset of Walter, a homosexual adolescent male? How did you go about trying to achieve this?

Jane Hamilton: It wasn't really difficult, because I've known many people who share parts of Walter's sensibility. I wanted to write about someone who had a passion to dance but had no talent, like myself. But I had no interest in trying to write about somebody similar to myself. So it was much more fun to put my predicament into the body of a boy. And it gave me a certain feeling of freedom.


Question: A MAP OF THE WORLD and THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE both describe how a solid, grounded midwestern family is turned upside down by one traumatic event. Do you think that midwestern filial fortitude is, to some extent, an illusion?

Jane Hamilton: Because I've only lived in the Midwest, I don't have a perspective of how midwesterners are different from other types of people. I didn't set out to portray a specific midwestern family bond; that is, I wasn't interested in the "midwesternness" of it. But I think that all filial bonds are fragile.


Question: I imagine you're a voracious reader. What are you reading right now?

Jane Hamilton: I'm reading AMAZING GRACE by Kathleen Norris and LARRY'S PARTY by Carol Shields.


Question: Are there any plans to make your books into films? Would that please or disturb you?

Jane Hamilton: A MAP OF THE WORLD is supposed to start filming this summer. I've made peace with the fact that a movie is an entirely different medium from a book. I will always have the book, and the movie will be what it is. And it might even be interesting. I have no part in the movie, and I have no problem with that. They're talking about filming it in Toronto.


Question: Many of your readers refer to Ruth as a victim, a term with an inherently defeatist connotation. Do you consider Ruth victimized, and is there anything in her story which you consider empowering to her?

Jane Hamilton: I don't think in terms of her as a victim. I think that she has many strengths, one of which is the power to tell stories. She understands the power of language. She's fierce in her own self. She's capable of empathy. And all of those things are not part of a typical victim.


Question: Is there any of yourself in Walter?

Jane Hamilton: Walter and I both loved to dance, and we love books.


Question: I absolutely love the part in A MAP OF THE WORLD where the mother is talking to her dead daughter and tells her when they're together again they'll pick up where they left off. What was the inspiration for this mesmerizing, touching portrayal?

Jane Hamilton: Just being a parent and being afraid that something like that could happen to my children.


Question: You live on an orchard in Wisconsin. Apples? Do you and your family still farm the land?

Jane Hamilton: It is an apple orchard. My husband and his family are very active in the operation.


Question: Which of your characters do you feel closest to ? Is it always the one you're currently writing about?

Jane Hamilton: Yes, I feel closest to Walter right at the moment. And I'm enjoying that bond, and I know that it won't be that strong when I move on to my next book.


JainBN: Here's a lovely comment from one of our audience members....

Question: One of my favorite things in the book is how sometimes it is enough that things are better than we expected in a situation. How true. I will give my children copies. If I was eloquent I would try to tell them so many things you've written beautifully.

Jane Hamilton: Oh, how nice! Thank you for reminding me, too, that that is part of the book. Sometimes I lose track of some minor themes.


Question: The part where Walter imagines someone looking up at the hospital window and thinking of the family now there rings so true. I remember feeling that. Was that an emotion you've experienced?

Jane Hamilton: Yes, I have definitely experienced that.


JainBN: Jane, thanks so much for writing such beautiful and moving books. We look forward to your next gift.

Jane Hamilton: Oh, thank you! And thanks for the good questions!


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Reading Group Guide

1. A sense of place is significant in each of Hamilton's books. At the heart of The Short History of a Prince is the family's summer home at Lake Margaret. What role does this big old house play in Hamilton's tale? Why is it so important?

2. In A Map of the World, Hamilton takes the reader on a slow, downward spiral toward disaster; in The Short History of a Prince, she makes it clear early on that Walter's brother will die, thereby revealing the book's ultimate tragedy and then moving beyond it. Does this defuse the story's suspense? Once you know of the death, what is it that makes you want to read on?

3. Walter's response to his brother's impending death is cruel and self-centered. Is his behavior understandable—even forgivable—at this point? Why or why not?

4. One of the pleasures of this novel is the evolution of Walter's and Susan's friendship. How does Hamilton manage to show each character at his or her worst in this relationship and yet convince the reader that they can be devoted friends?

5. Sue Rawson is an important figure in Walter's life, and her association with the world of classical arts holds particular meaning for him. What do you think Hamilton is trying to say with her portrayal of this woman who seems to live on an altogether different plane than the rest of her family?

6. Is The Short History of a Prince written entirely from Walter's point of view, or were there times when you felt the presence of an omniscient narrator? If so, how did this change of perspective affect your reading of the story? What about Walter's humorous tone? Did his lighthearted attitude diminish the impact of thistale of tragic death, failed romance, and loss of a dream, or serve to make it even more poignant? How does Hamilton manage to take us through such a journey and end with hope?

7. How would you describe the world as portrayed in Jane Hamilton's novels? Is it particularly just or unjust? Does it strike you as realistic?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2001

    Jane Hamilton's Best Yet!

    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

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2000

    get hooked on hamilton

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2013

    Couldn't get interest this book and cannot recommend.  

    Couldn't get interest this book and cannot recommend.  

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    Posted December 28, 2010

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    Posted January 6, 2010

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    Posted October 26, 2008

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    Posted October 25, 2008

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