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Rex A Owens

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Review of When Madeline was Young
by Rex A Owens   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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Review of "When Madeline was Young" by Jane Hamilton

 Madeline and Aaron Maciver are a young married couple living leading ordinary lives in Wisconsin until, during a bike ride, Madeline is injured and her left brain is damaged. Madeline’s traumatic brain injury(TBI) hurls her back into the world of a ten year old child while remaining a young woman in all other ways.

Hamilton’s narrator

Hamilton has Timothy Maciver,(Mac) Aaron’s son by his second wife, Julia, tell Madeline’s story. Aaron is unable to abandon Madeline and they continue to live together as man and wife following the accident. Aaron then meets Julia, a nurse, he falls in love and only then divorces Madeline. However, divorce doesn’t mean separation. Madeline continues to live with Aaron and Julia and Julia takes over as Madeline’s caretaker.

The story beings with Mac’s older cousin revealing that Madeline is not his sister as he thought she was Even though Madeline is 41 when the novel opens Mac has always thought of her as a girl. Mac’s quest is to understand his family with his father. mother, sister and  Madeline. While this is a plot which requires the reader to suspend disbelief, it provides Hamilton the opportunity to address several social topics.     

Compassion in family life

Although Madeline suffered from a TBI, Aaron Maciver continues to care for her even when her own parents reject her. Aaron doesn’t divorce Madeline until it becomes necessary so that he can marry Julia who he has fallen in love with.

Julia is as close to a saint as any modern literary character. She accepts that Madeline lives in the same house with Aaron even after they marry. Then Julia gives up her career as a nurse in order to become Madeline’s lifelong caretaker. Julia can’t be dismissed as a passive character who takes on the yoke of caring for her husband’s special needs first wife.

Julia advocates for Madeline to have as normal a life as possible. She even supports Madeline when she falls in love witho Mikey O’Day who has Downs syndrome. Julia supports Madeline in wanting to “marry” Mikey.    However, Mikey O’Days parents are appalled by the idea and even move to Florida to prevent the “marriage”.

Anti-Vietnam theme

Julia  is actively involved in anti-Vietnam politics and Hamilton introduces anti-war topics through two completely different story lines. The first is through dinner discussions with Aunt Figgy and her husband, a member of the Johnson administration staff and apologist for the Vietnam war. Their differences eventually cause Julia and Figgy to end their relationship through the end of Julia’s life.

The second is when we learn Mac is a conscientious objector while attending medical school while his older cousin Buddy volunteers to serve immediately after high school. The cousins drift apart since each takes a very different life path from the other.   Twenty-five years pass and Buddy’s son is killed while serving in Iran. Mac doesn’t have any interest in attending the funeral, however his wife Diane, convinces him it is the right ”family” thing to do.


At the funeral the two men wrestle like young boys and Buddy forgives Mac for not going to the war. While Mac feels no need to be forgiven he recognizes the effort Buddy is making to reconcile and grieve for his own son. As the two men reconcile in the same way that America has come to be reconciled with the Viet Nam war years later.


By today’s standards the book is long weighing in over 91,000 words and is not similar to her previous novels:  The Book of Ruth(1988), A Map of the World(1994), The Short History of a Prince(1998). The novel is well written and contains the nitty gritty details of family life in the Midwest. This novel deserves attention for what it teaches about compassion, love and reconciliation.    

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