Synopses & Reviews
I make my little friends up here at camp and school, but I'm drawn to the cheerful. Life is short and I'm not here for the gloom. I been a good sister to Gladys, and that's enough gloom for any one soul, and I don't say that to blame her, and it's not like we haven't had some laughs even in the darkest of dark years. But Gladys had a hard life. I say had not because she's dead. I say had because I think it's changed now. --Ivy A small wind bent the flames. I peered over at Raelene's firelit face, which looked young, dangerously young. Needy. I rowed back inside myself all the way for a clear moment. I could row myself back inside like I was a cave. A cave with ice on the walls, nice and dark. I could see the world and anyone in it standing at the cave's mouth, framed and manageable. I had to do this right away with Raelene. Because I see now that she scared me . . . Raelene dragged me out of my cave. Mad at her for even showing up. I wished she'd go back to where she came from . . . Of course, once you're out of the cave, you're out. You're rearranged. Bigger. So if you try going back in the cave, the fits no longer quite right. --Gladys
Gladys and Ivy are sisters and reluctant best friends. For the past ten years they've cooked side by side in the kitchen at Camp Timber and Timber winter school in a quiet, rural town in upstate New York. On the outside both women are similar-middle-aged, generously built, plainly dressed. Sadly, Gladys' lifetime has been marked by grief, including a divorce and the immeasurable loss of both of her children. While Ivy has been there with her through all of it, wanting to console and help, Gladys has been too frozen inside her griefto accept her sister's offering.
Then one April day, seventeen-year-old Raelene appears at the screen door of the sisters' house. A mysterious character, "with her long hair and pale face walking through the closed-up town on a bitter evening in her Salvation Army black coat," Raelene ultimately helps free Gladys to take a long denied emotional journey. While Raelene and Gladys travel across the country on a Greyhound bus, Ivy is left behind to grapple with her sister's absence and an inner life long ignored. Then, shortly after Gladys' departure, an unexpected visitor arrives on her doorstep-Gladys' estranged husband, James-further challenging Ivy's own quiet existence and driving a wedge between the sisters.
The sisters' temporary parting of ways allows both Gladys and Ivy to face truths about themselves and their lives that their well ordered co-existence helped keep at bay. In the end, they arrive at a new and transformed understanding of their relationship-and of their own lives. Questions for Discussion
- What is the significance of the title, particularly in the context of Gladys' and Ivy's lives? Do you feel that it adequately represents the main themes of this story?
- This story is largely told from Gladys' and Ivy's respective points of view, with smaller portions from James and Raelene. What would the effect on the story have been had it been told solely from Ivy's point of view? Gladys'? James' or Raelenes'?
- One Heart is a story told by adults, but in some ways it is mostly about children. Although we never directly meet Wendell or Ann, their characters are two of the most compelling. What are some of the techniques that McCafferty uses toevoke Ann and Wendell? What kind of children do you think they were? How does the author use the camp children to illuminate Ann's and Wendell's characters?
- What kind of effect does it have on the story that both Gladys and Ivy have poor grammar and yet intense storytelling powers? Can you locate specific places in the story where this effect heightens the emotion of the moment? How does McCafferty differentiate the two sisters' voices?
- Late in the novel, James becomes enraptured with a gosling family and its journey to the lake. What is the significance of this episode? Can you locate other examples in the story where the natural world is employed to set a mood or tell us something?
- "I used to be a woman who thought of the eggs when she made the eggs-I liked that scrambled yellow color, and the bacon when she made the bacon-the smell and sizzle . . . . It's not as pleasant when your mind drifts. It's really not the right way to live. I'm against it. But I can't seem to make it stop." (p.40) One might construe this as Ivy's philosophy of life, do you agree? What would you say is Gladys' philosophy of life? What about Raelenes' and James'?
- How does the setting of Camp Timber contribute to and illuminate the sisters' story? Would another setting have worked as well? What about the kitchen as the place that Ivy and Gladys worked side by side for years?
- "What matters in the end, she suggests, has less to do with conventional images of happiness than with the deep, close-to-the-bone bonds that actually sustain us" (New York Times Book Review). What do you think the reviewer means by this comment? How do the themes of love and loneliness play out inthis story? Grief and redemption? Do you feel this story has a happy ending?
- Both of the sisters take journeys of discovery Gladys with Raelene and Ivy with James. What does Gladys learn from her journey? What does Ivy learn? Why do you suppose James allows himself to become involved with Ivy even though he is still deeply in love with Gladys? Why is Raelene so determined to befriend Gladys?
- At James' urging, he and Gladys revisit the lake where their three-year-old daughter, Ann, drowned. Gladys is deeply upset with herself for going in the water on that day. Why? Can you trace Gladys slow journey to forgiving herself? What are the other turning points for her?
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Reading Group Guide ISBN: 0-06-095880-4
From the award-winning author of the acclaimed short story collection Director of the World comes this charmingly poignant tale of two sisters whose experiences often separate them but whose love for eachother is deepened over a lifetime. Bonded by their affection and shared loneliness, Gladys and Ivy remain divided by a wall of silence that prevents Gladys from accepting the solace Ivy desperately wants to give. But their quiet lives are upended when a young woman with a mysterious past arrives on their doorstep and whisks Gladys away on a journey of discovery. Ultimately Gladys's experience transforms both sisters, teaching them the importance of emotional honesty and the value of family.
In the tradition of Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich, One Heart is a moving tale of friendship, forgiveness, and redemption-a remarkable achievement from an exquisitely talented writer.
When Your Mind Drifts"
The winter school's a red brick building set down in the valley with spruce and ash circling all around it, and the camp's up on the other hill, all spread out on the flat land. They got cabins and what you call lean-tos for sleeping, and in the middle an outhouse someone painted purple. The children are sent up here just as soon as they spell "cat." They're wealthy children, but brokenhearted. You can see that initially.
My sister, Gladys, cooked with me the last ten years or so. She's forty-eight now. Let's face it; she's a rather heavy woman, like me, so the children get their laughs. For children "fat" is the joke they hear over and over and still it's funny. Gladys thinks the children are mean-spirited (a few are) and can't understand it's like we're the fat ladies in the circus, no harm intended. But then again I been fat since birth. Gladys only blew up after she had troubles.
And neither me or Gladys are huge and unsightly. We're just big, full-figured, nice-looking quality women. We have always attracted the men. We couldn't really work in the circus. No possible way would the circus hire us.
In the summertime the children are more scared to death of Gladys than the winter boarder kids are. Winter kids get used to her ways. In the summer when they file into the eating hall behind their counselors, Gladys stands near the wall in her white uniform, watchingthem with her big green eyes and her wire-rim reading glasses low on her nose and her hair sweaty and dark from the kitchen. Stands stone still like a fat lady statue. If a bold one ever waves to her, maybe she nods her head, maybe she don't.
But this past spring everything changed up here. It happened there was a counselor come up here, a young girl of seventeen called Raelene. Raelene was a pretty little thing even with her crooked teeth, but she was all alone in that camp, since the counselors are mostly kids who used to be campers here, rich cliquey kids from the Ivy Leagues. There's a lot of ideas some of these people learn to carry, the main one being they're better than others. You can see the nicer ones trying not to think this way; it's not even their fault really. It's been ground in, and they're limited by what they've seen.
Now Raelene, take a quick look at that girl and you'd know she was from elsewhere, other circumstances, like you could imagine her in a wintry town where the industry died and the windows of the stores are boarded up. You could see Raelene with her long hair and pale face walking through the closed-up town on a bitter evening in her Salvation Army black coat with a fur collar smelling like a dead woman's perfume. And no gloves. Her hands bare and chapped with bit-down polished nails. She would be the sort to just stand in the circle of streetlight and tap her foot. Or maybe that's just in my head she does that.
Not that I'd even let her in my head much if Gladys hadn't known her. I make my little friends up here at camp and school, but I'm drawn to the cheerful. Life is short and I'm not here for the gloom. I been a good sister to Gladys, and that'senough gloom for any one soul, and I don't say that to blame her, and it's not like we haven't had some laughs even in the darkest of dark years. But Gladys had a hard life. I say "had" not because she's dead. I say "had" because I think it's changed now.
The reason Raelene even ended up at camp in the first place has to do with about seven or so years ago, back when the war was going on in Vietnam, and Gladys's boy, Wendell, bless his soul, was over there captured. Raelene, who back then lived in Philadelphia, ended up wearing one of them bracelets they gave out to the young people. A prisoner of war bracelet, which Gladys didn't like the idea of. A few winter school kids wore those bracelets, and Gladys could see the names didn't mean much. The kids couldn't know what any of it meant, no matter how many times they sung "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." She didn't like thinking her son's name, Wendell J. Pittman, would be on some ignorant child's wrist, some child who wore the name like a piece of jewelry from a gum machine.And sure enough there was a child out there in the world wearing Wendell J. Pittman on her wrist, and this child was Raelene Francis. One day in November, I believe 1969, Gladys got a letter in the mail.
It was a child writing to her saying she was praying for Wendell to come home every day and every night, and lighting candles in two churches every morning. The bracelet company had sent his picture, the one where he's almost smiling in his army uniform that Gladys kept by her bed, and the child said she thought Wendell looked cute. Then the child goes on to tell Gladys that she had no parents, that she was a real live orphan down there in Philadelphia, and ifGladys wanted she would come and be her little girl.
Gladys read that letter out loud to me at the supper table late that night. I can see it clearly We're having wedding soup. Gladys has her Jack Daniel's in a short glass. She's wearing her old cat-eyed drugstore glasses with the thick lenses so her eyes are magnified.
In this charmingly poignant tale, two sisters, bonded by affection and a shared loneliness, have trouble bridging a gap of emotional silence until a young woman comes along and whisks one of the sisters away on a journey of discovery.
From the award-winning author of the acclaimed short story collection Director of the Worldcomes this charmingly poignant tale of two sisters whose experiences often separate them but whose love for eachother is deepened over a lifetime. Bonded by their affection and shared loneliness, Gladys and Ivy remain divided by a wall of silence that prevents Gladys from accepting the solace Ivy desperately wants to give. But their quiet lives are upended when a young woman with a mysterious past arrives on their doorstep and whisks Gladys away on a journey of discovery. Ultimately Gladys's experience transforms both sisters, teaching them the importance of emotional honesty and the value of family.
In the tradition of Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich, One Heartis a moving tale of friendship, forgiveness, and redemption-a remarkable achievement from an exquisitely talented writer.
About the Author
Jane McCafferty was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for a section of One Heart. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Story, Witness, and other publications, and her short story collection, Director of the World, was awarded the 1992 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.