As posted on JournalTimes.com:
ROCHESTER — Place, especially the rural pockets of America, plays a big role in the novels of Jane Hamilton.
In her latest novel “The Excellent Lombards” the author has turned her gaze toward a subject and a place with she is intimately familiar — life on a family apple orchard in Wisconsin.
Published this April, the novel focuses on life at the orchard, and the questions each character faces, as the time comes to determine the future of the family business with regard to the next generation.
Raised in the historic and well-heeled Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., Hamilton may have the upbringing of an urbanite, but she has spent the bulk of her adult life in Rochester.
She first came to the area, and to the Ela Orchard she now calls home, in 1979 after visiting the farm with a friend from college. It was during that trip that she met Robert Willard, now her now husband who runs the farm and the roughly 20-acre orchard with his cousin, Edwin Ela. Both families live on the farm and orchard, which has been in the family for three generations.
Having set other novels on other types of farms, Hamilton said she wanted to use a family apple orchard for the setting of her latest tale because it’s what she knows, and also what she loves.
“I could have set it on a blueberry orchard in Maine or on an avocado orchard in California, so maybe it is just a little bit of laziness? It’s just terrain that I am so familiar with. But really I think that I wanted to set it in a place that is very dear to me,” Hamilton said. “For me, the book is part love song, and part elegy and part celebration.”
“There are always so many rich questions and impossible answers in the matter of succession: Who gets to stay? Who can’t stay? Who stays but isn’t equipped to stay? Who comes from the outside and is forever considered the outsider? Who wields power over that outsider? That could be three novels. That’s an epic,” she said.
Watching the phenomenon of succession unfold on her family’s orchard helped pique that fascination.
“It has just been an interesting problem that we have had to consider for years now, and now we are coming up to it. So I think I wrote the book to see myself through those questions,” she said.
Hamilton and Willard have children, but she said it “remains to be seen” just who in the family will take on the operation of the orchard and farm going forward.
“It is not exactly like taking religious orders, but in a certain way it is,” she said.