“The Hero of This Book” Melds Memoir and Fiction while Moving Through Time and Space

Author Elizabeth McCracken is no rookie to the game of writing. Over the course of her career, McCracken has published over a half dozen novels and a memoir. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she and her novelist husband have also been on the faculty. She was the recipient of the Story Prize and the PEN New England Award, as well as a finalist or short-listed for many others. Her parents were both professors at Boston University, and her brother was the editor-in-chief for PC World Magazine. These details are relevant when considering McCracken’s newest novel (memoir?), The Hero of This Book, if only because although it is relegated to the fiction section, many of the facts listed above are discussed in her latest work.

The Hero of This Book is a meandering story which digresses timelines and continents, bouncing back throughout the narrator’s upbringing with her parents, a trip she took with her mother – a feisty, confident woman who was born with a debilitating disease that she battled her whole life and denied it the opportunity to win her over – and winds all the way through to 2019, ten months after her mother’s death and into another trip to London where she ponders life, death, and the intimately ordinary existence of her parents. Of her mother, the narrator reminisces, “From her earliest childhood, she was treated as helpless when she knew she was not. She was a force of nature. The body that might have made her look weak to a stranger was the result of enormous physical strength and bloody-mindedness.”

At a sleek 177 pages, McCracken breaks open the stereotypical definition of what is considered fiction or memoir. She muddles and layers times and events, all in an effort to pay homage to her mom, mostly, but also her father, their lives, and adamantly suggests with all the attention and wit of a talented writer that this is not a memoir! The narrator’s mother was known to say, “Oh, those people who write memoirs about the worst thing that ever happened to them!” The narrator, too, makes the comment:

“I’ve heard some memoirists say that they don’t worry whether their renditions of people are fair, since there is no fair: We all have our own memories, and a memoir is one person’s. What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir? I couldn’t tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.”

Essentially, both women had their opinions on the matter, and McCracken so delicately toed the line of a respectful and reflective piece of literature.

While the story itself is slow to start and other moments throughout seem too mundane to find interesting, McCracken — similar to the works of Anne Patchett or Elizabeth Strout — is able to find tidbits in the mundane and make them relevant, witty, and relatable, as seen in the following passage:

“Off went the cloaks of dust. On went Murphy Oil Soap: cabinet doors, the clattering rolltop, the sides. I moved from counter to counter, appliance to cupboard. (Cup board: This is where the cups board.) I scrubbed the slanted hood over the stove, which perhaps had never really been cleaned in the years of my parents’ residence. My mother couldn’t clean it. My father wouldn’t.”

The clean, brisk language, stunning sentences that tie up the chapters, and overall thoughtfulness in terms of life and acceptance make it well worth the read.

That line between fiction and reality in any writing is often blurred and vague, and McCracken made an entire book of this concept in a completely discernible way. That is, while we don’t necessarily know which parts are elements pulled from her actual life and which are invented to substantiate the narrator and her fictive story, we do know — given the footnote and from a little light digging on McCracken’s background — that it’s a hodgepodge of fiction and nonfiction. And, really, it doesn’t matter what it is; the beauty and worthiness of the story transcend genre.

The Hero of This Book
By Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco Press
Published on October 4, 2022