Alice Goodwin is the wife of Howard, a midwestern dairy farmer, the mother of two daughters aged five and three, and the nurse at a local elementary school. She and her friend, Theresa Collins, a family therapist who lives in the nearby suburbs, take turns watching each other's children. One morning, while Alice is momentarily distracted, Theresa's two-year-old daughter, Lizzy, falls into the pond on the Goodwin farm. Despite Alice's attempts to resuscitate her, she dies after three days in the hospital.

Not long after, while she is severely depressed, Alice is arrested on (false) charges of sexually abusing some of the schoolchildren in her care. Confused, and thinking only of Lizzy's drowning, Alice says to the police, "I hurt everybody." They take this to be a confession.

She spends three months in prison awaiting trial, until Howard sells the farm to pay her bond. The novel gives us both Alice's experiences in prison--in a world she had hardly imagined--and Howard's struggle to take care of their children. Theresa, who seems never to have blamed Alice for her child's death, helps him and they develop a powerful bond. The novel ends with the trial, in which Alice is exonerated, and their family's tentative beginning of a new, urban life.


Alice is a nurse and a mother: she has a double role as caregiver. In the double catastrophe that she has to cope with, Hamilton shows us how vulnerable order and normality can be, especially to those, like mothers and health care professionals, who are expected to provide safety and healing. Despite their beneficence, school nurses are called "the shot ladies" and, Alice says, "we inspired fear wherever we went" (13).

Much of her work, though, involves caring for children neglected by their parents. Being a mother is difficult, too: Alice's older daughter, Emma, is willful and violent toward her mother, and for Alice, maternal care means not defending herself against Emma's anger. Lizzy's drowning, though largely accidental, leaves Alice devastated by her own failure to protect the child.

In Theresa's ability to forgive her friend, we are reminded of how much harder it can be to forgive ourselves when we cause harm without meaning to (and although it does not happen as part of Alice's professional life, this part of the story offers insights readily applicable to discussion of medical mistakes). So when Alice is accused of deliberately abusing her charges, she is incapable of defending herself.

The novel's title comes from the object that distracts Alice early on in the book, while she is meant to be watching Lizzy: a detailed map she had drawn, as a child, of an imaginary world. All that follows reminds us how fragile our attempts are to circumscribe safe, manageable, predictable worlds, like the family, and the farm, where we can feel secure. Reality, even the reality where we are supposedly the caregivers, source of benevolent power, resists our mapping and can undermine our best efforts.

As a solution, Hamilton offers "the web of forgiveness," connections with others that are based not on power or even trust, but on the acceptance of fallibility and fragility. The ideas in this novel are revealing if applied to a health care system where infallibility is assumed to be the norm.



Place Published

New York



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