'Disobedience' shows Hamilton's other side

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2012

Editor’s note: Jane Hamilton will be featured at the Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College on Thursday.
“Disobedience,” by Jane Hamilton. Anchor. $13.95.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — When Henry Shaw accidentally opens his mother’s email account, it is only with passing interest, initially, that he decides to surreptitiously scan through some of her mail. After all, Henry is the computer geek in the family, he is the one who set up the system, he is the one who gave his mother the cool email name of LIZA38 and provided her with her password. But, going into her email account later was an accident. Really.
With Henry Shaw’s transgression, Jane Hamilton begins her fourth novel, “Disobedience.” In “Disobedience,” the reader spends a year observing the Shaw family through the eyes of Henry Shaw, high school senior. We see Kevin, the father, a passionate teacher of high school history at a private school. We see his wife, Beth, also known as LIZA38, a pianist of antique music. And, we see Elvira, Henry’s 13-year-old sister, a diehard Civil War reenactor who wishes to dress the part and live the life, 24 hours a day.
Finally, we must not forget Richard Polloco, the man that LIZA38, aka Beth Shaw, is obviously getting ready to have an affair with. Or is having an affair with, judging by her emails. Or is she? It is all very confusing for Henry the email sleuth, but, once in, he simply has to maintain vigilance over his mother’s email from that accidental opening on. He just can’t leave it alone. Somebody has to know what is getting ready to befall his close Ozzie-and-Harriet family so they may be prepared and protected in case they become one mother short. Plus, he just may learn a few good lines he can use as he tries to snare the one love of his own life, Lily, his “girl” from summer camp.
Throughout his senior year, Henry leads his life, obsessed with his observance and investigation, while he feels himself more and more the adult of the family. He dwells intensely in his own thoughts, yet he does have one rock upon which he can stand; his one friend and classmate Karen. Karen is a poet, asexual and somewhat overweight. But she provides to Henry a respite, a sounding board and a fountain of wisdom, not always sought after. Karen, like an old man’s cane, provides Henry something to lean on.
Hamilton has written six novels to date. Four of those novels, including her first two, “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World,” along with “Disobedience” and the later “When Madeline Was Young,” Hamilton wrote in the first person. First person narratives can be difficult to write, yet Hamilton started her career that way and has written all but two of her books in that format. She has done all of them well, and in fact is quite the master of the format. In “Disobedience,” Hamilton is remarkable writing as a 17-year-old boy, though actually the novel is a reminiscence of 10 years later when Henry is 27, and still dwelling on that year 10 years prior.
Hamilton has taken a serious topic, unfaithfulness, and shown what some of the ramifications can be. She has done this well. But, she has also infused a certain amount of humor into her writing, through situations that arise and the narrative itself, which is also characteristic of most of Hamilton’s work. In “Disobedience,” much of the subtle humor arises from Henry’s thinking of himself as the adult in the family, and the snide and droll commentary he either says to himself or, when brave, out loud to his clueless family.
Elvira, the Civil War reenactor, as Elviron, male drummer boy, provides a certain degree of almost slapstick humor. Elvira is the comic relief, as she shows up for a wedding dressed in full Civil War garb, including the saber, or eats her camp food at the breakfast table. Even when Elvira is outed as a girl at a reenactment and practically raped by her regiment, the pathos is steeped with humor.
“Disobedience” did not win the acclaim of Hamilton’s first two books, yet I believe it to be one of her best, if not her best, novel. Like John Irving, she is able to take a serious topic and cover it with enough humor to keep everything on a steady pace forward and in perspective. In fact, Hamilton has managed to insert some comic relief in each of her novels, with the exception of “The Book of Ruth.” And in this day and time, a touch of comic relief is not a bad thing.

Brady Author’s Symposium Thursday
Jane Hamilton will be the featured speaker at the Brady Author’s Symposium Thursday at Catawba College. The lecture begins at 11 a.m., followed by a luncheon at 12:15 and book signing at 1:15. A writing Q&A will follow at 2 p.m. Tickets for the lecture are $20 per person. Tickets for the Q&A are $10. The luncheon is full. All events are at the Robertson College Community Center on the Catawba College campus. Call 704-637-4393 for tickets.