The country folk in Hamilton's first novel lead plain, hard, impoverished lives--on a good day. When things get bad, there's brutality, bestiality, and no small amount of bloodshed. These are the same raw ingredients used by Flannery O'Connor and Carolyn Chute, but Hamilton does not share their sharp, tragicomic vision. Her rural Illinois characters are blunted by the meanness of their lives. Some escape, others just wait it out until they die. Ruth, the narrator, is caught somewhere in between. Suffering through a thoroughly rotten childhood--she's abandoned by her father Elmer, verbally lacerated by her mother May, and constantly compared, unfavorably, to her prodigy brother Matthew--she finds comfort in carrying on a secret correspondence with her beautiful Aunt Sid, who believes in her. Later, while employed as a helper to a blind neighbor, Ruth gets hooked on good books while listening to recordings of the classics, and things bode well--she's going places. But, somehow, it never happens. Ruth goes to work at the dry cleaners, along with May. She takes up bowling. And then she marries Ruby, a sweet, confused former gas-station attendant who likes to spend his days smoking dope and adoring her. They live with acid-tongued May for a few long, hard winters and, finally, inevitably, violence erupts, shattering Ruth's life. Hamilton's writing is strong and clear, even if her intentions are a trifle obscure. She gives Ruth plenty of spark but then lets her fizzle, surprisingly, before our eyes. Whatever the message is, it's not bright with hope. Still, this is an affecting first novel, dark and knowing.