Book review: ‘Becoming a Woman of Substance’

For the Recorder
Published: 2/16/2022 4:07:52 PM
Modified: 2/16/2022 4:05:56 PM

Karma Kitaj of Bernardston is a psychotherapist and historian who is interested in what makes people resilient. In her new novel, “Becoming a Woman of Substance,” she explores a woman who springs back from adversity in the mid-20th century.

Kitaj introduced her heroine, Miriam Levine Butler, in the 2018 historical novel “Beguiled.” In that story, Miriam moved from an immigrant household in Boston to immerse herself in artistic and social movements in New York City.

Her new novel returns to Miriam, although it may be read independently of its predecessor. It opens in 1938. Miriam has lost sight of her own creativity and self-confidence. Her marriage is flailing, and she is profoundly depressed.

Although she loves her severely disabled daughter and wants to save her marriage, she longs for more stimulation than her unresponsive child and cold husband can give.

She resolves to find a bigger purpose in life. With the help of her Bohemian friends and the encouragement of her mother, Miriam decides to try to make contact with Hallie Flanagan.

A real-life figure about whom Kitaj has clearly done a great deal of research, Flanagan was a producer and playwright who directed the Federal Theatre Project. This arm of the New Deal was designed to create jobs for unemployed people in the theater during the Depression.

Miriam attends one of the project’s productions, a “living newspaper” that seems to speak directly not just to her but also to working class people in the audience. Through her theater connections, she makes contact with Flannagan, who hires her to explore topics for future productions.

Miriam finds a nanny to take care of her daughter and throws herself into her new work. Her first assignment is a research project on dust-bowl migrant workers in California. Her heart is moved by the plight of the workers she interviews and also by her colleague on the job, a handsome Haitian-born actor.

The Federal Theatre Project loses its funding, and Miriam’s husband grows increasingly distant. Nevertheless, she refuses to give up on her dream of contributing to society. She goes on to work on a political campaign, on the board of a nonprofit group, and for a newspaper.

Eventually, Miriam runs for the state legislature herself, fully confident in her ability to speak to the public and shape public policy.

I wasn’t always able to sympathize with Miriam as a protagonist. Her judgment is often clouded by her desires. Still, that’s a flaw I share so I can’t complain.

I was fascinated by Kitaj’s continuing use of real-life characters and situations. I knew very little about the Federal Theatre Project before reading the book and now want to learn a lot more. I’m sure other readers will feel the same way … and will enjoy Miriam’s journey as she becomes the woman she wants to be.

Karma Kitaj recently hosted an online session on the process of incorporating historical figures into fiction. It was recorded and may be viewed at The passcode for this Zoom session is 3$8Jrn=y.

“Becoming a Woman of Substance,” published by Huckle Hill Press, is available in eBook and audio versions as well as in print. For more information, visit

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website,


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