A Map of the World: A Novel (Oprah’s Book Club)

From the author of the widely acclaimed The Book of Ruth comes a harrowing, heartbreaking drama about a rural American family and a disastrous event that forever changes their lives.

The Goodwins, Howard, Alice, and their little girls, Emma and Claire, live on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Although suspiciously regarded by their neighbors as "that hippie couple" because of their well-educated, urban background, Howard and Alice believe they have found a source of emotional strength in the farm, he tending the barn while Alice works as a nurse in the local elementary school.

But their peaceful life is shattered one day when a neighbor’s two-year-old daughter drowns in the Goodwins’ pond while under Alice’s care. Tormented by the accident, Alice descends even further into darkness when she is accused of sexually abusing of a student at the elementary school. Soon, Alice is arrested, incarcerated, and as good as convicted in the eyes of a suspicious community. As a child, Alice designed her own map of the world to find her bearings. Now, as an adult, she must find her way again, through a maze of lies, doubt and ill will.

A vivid human drama of guilt and betrayal, A Map of the World chronicles the intricate geographies of the human heart and all its mysterious, uncharted terrain.  The result is a piercing drama about family bonds and a disappearing rural American life.


  • Series: Oprah's Book Club
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (December 3, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720106
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720106
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (422 customer reviews)
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7 thoughts on “A Map of the World: A Novel (Oprah’s Book Club)”

  1. Alice Goodwin is a troubled woman living on a dairy farm in Prairie Center, Wisconsin. The mother of two girls, Emma (6) and Claire (3), she is struggling to get her life together. When her husband Howard decided to pursue his dream of being a dairy farmer, she went along with him, but they have been trying to make ends meet. Alice is the school nurse at the local elementary school, and after the terrible drowning of the two-year old neighbor who was in Alice’s care, she is suddenly faced with sexual harassment charges from one of the students at the school. While she is in jail Howard desperately tries to keep the family from falling apart, which proves very difficult, and everyone’s breath is held leading up to and during the trial. I liked this book, because of the strong emotions and sub-plots. The reader really feels as if he/she is experiencing the unfolding of the carefully planned plot, riding along with the family as they dodge all of the ruts in the road of life. It is amazing to read the story through the eyes of both Alice and Howard. I would recommend this book for most people ages 13 and older.

  2. I was hesitant to pick this book after reading some reader reviews describing it as boring, too wordy, and turned off by the death of a child.
    On the contrary, I found it very rich, textural, and complex in a very human way. I was never bored and whipped through this in less than a week. I found it fascinating. I loved the way Alice narrated it at first, then Howard, than back to Alice again.
    People are very fallible, complex characters and this book finds the perfect pitch to tell that story. It is about surviving trageday, and ultimately, forgiveness.
    While this is not a “happy” read, I was not depressed by it either. I get so tired of people complaining about subject matter being depressing and therefore, throwaway. It is through pain we often find joy. For me, a good book, or movie is something that grips me and holds my attention, whether it be happy or sad or both.
    This is one of the better books I have read in a long time. I will read more by Jane Hamilton.

  3. I can see the funeral in my mind’s eye as I write. I have read Hamilton’s other books and found them a bit dull. But, my God, this book will rip your heart out. I actually told the story to my husband on a car trip. We were crying so hard we had to pull over. Astounding piece of fiction.

  4. I read A Short History of A Prince last year and I was incredibly impressed with Hamilton’s work. So when Oprah picked A Map of the World for her Bookclub I was anxiously anticipating a good read. I must say that I was far from disappointed for the novel which traces the fall and rise of a farm workers family is indeed a sharply beautiful and elegant work. I feel that the triptych like structure is an excellent way of highlighting the different points of view – Alice, her husband Howard and then back to Alice for the final court room scenes. The psychological descriptions of Alice’s inability to cope with Lizzie’s drowning are riveting. Also, masterful are the decriptions of her husband Howard as he tries to hold up the “home front” when Alice is incarcerated for suspected child abuse. Hamilton’s eye for natural detail is great and her use of metaphor terrific. She has a keen ear for natural dialogue and a remarkable capacity to present wonderfully complex three dimensional characters. She really makes us feel Alice, Howard’s and Teresa’s pain and hurt. The novel works on many levels: as a “map” of family life which slowly disintergrates; a psychological analysis of death grief and loss; and also as a cinematic court room drama (I can’t wait to see the film!). The fragilities of economic circumstance are also explored. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed. Hamilton shows the closed mindedness of small town life: the Goodwins were percieved as different, eccentic and hippyish. They didn’t fit in and the “god fearing” citizens of the town new it. By writing this novel Hamilton is perhaps making us not only aware of the shortcomings of being different in a homogenious environment but also the pitfalls of trying to build a life in such an insulated and ultimately prejudiced community. A great, important work of literature.
    Michael Leonard

  5. I was intrigued at the efficient way the author lets us in on the most personal thoughts of these characters, their lives and how their whole world so suddenly changes direction. It is a reminder to all of us that life is not to take for granted and that we can all fall from grace.

  6. I read this book a few years ago shortly after it was released in paperback. Jane Hamilton is a beautiful, insightful writer with a keen ability to paint realistic characters experiencing very believable emotions. Although I appreciate her immense talent, this book left me feeling empty and sad, rather than enraged, embolded or inspired, as she may have intended. This is a well-written book that deserves all its praise, but reading an emotionally draining book, with little levity to break up the mood, is simply not how I like to spend a rainy afternoon.

  7. I must admit that I was skeptical in picking up this book because I did not enjoy The Book of Ruth, a book in which I just could not relate to any of the characters or their life choices. And yet, I was blown away — I found this work to have such depth of character and so much meaning. Ms. Hamilton writes so beautifully that the characters come alive and you experience their tragedies just as if you were a close friend. Just as one reviewer said, you can’t put it down, but you tremble as you turn the page, terrified of what may happen next. It is an amazing story of the power of forgiveness, and surviving (but not triumphing over) adversity.

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