It occurs to me that the title of this post, which gives us the author and title of a book I just finished, works quite well as a descriptive phrase, for Marcy Alancraig, a friend for almost 30 years, is indeed a woman of heart.
When I was taking creative writing classes from Marcy in the mid-80s, she was working on a novel about chicken ranchers in Petaluma in the 1920s. A Woman of Heart is that novel, I believe, finally published earlier this year. It was worth the wait. I admit it took me awhile to realize that while the setting was indeed Petaluma chicken ranchers in the 20s, the book isn’t really “about” that subject. You won’t learn how to run a chicken ranch from reading this book.
A Woman of Heart is a character study, informed by its context (leftist politics amongst American Jews). The family at the center of the novel is finely drawn; every member is a distinct person, and every one of them has real depth. This includes those who have passed away, for A Woman of Heart is also something of a ghost story, although not in the sense of Casper and the Ghostly Trio. Instead, many of the characters communicate with ghosts, and many of those ghosts are deceased family members. The chapters alternate between several narrators, and the ones who experience the ghosts describe events as if the ghosts were just like everyone else. This adds a realism you don’t expect, for while Rheabie, the aging matriarch of the family, has lived with the ghosts her entire life, the rest of the family is largely ignorant of the ghosts’ existence. A good part of the novel is taken up with Rheabie’s memories, which give the family history, as she finds one granddaughter who believes in the ghosts (because she has experiences of her own).
The result is a book that feels quite real in its depiction of a family history, even with its supernatural trimmings. Alancraig effortlessly allows the reader to believe in both the concrete reality and the fantastic accompaniments, all to the point of creating memorable characters.
In the acknowledgements page of my dissertation, I thanked Marcy, noting that without her tutelage in my earliest days as a writer, I would never have been able to finish a book-length project. I’m very glad I finally got to read A Woman of Heart, which is full of both heart and skill.