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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Another tale of Irish immigration

Like Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, The Walking People, the debut novel from Mary Beth Keane, deals with the story of Irish immigrants. Whereas Brooklyn recounted a few years in the life of Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey, The Walking People looks at the total life experience of Michael and Greta Ward, who came to New York City in the early 1960's.

The prologue of the book opens in 2007, as we watch the last day at work for Michael Ward. He has been a sandhog, digging tunnels underground in New York City for 35 years. It has been a physically difficult job, he has suffered hearing loss, and was nearly killed in a bad accident years ago. Now it is loss of memory that he is battling.

The book begins in 1956, in Ballyroan, Ireland, a rural area bordering a river that has lost much of its population over the years. The Cahill family struggles to earn a meager living, and to avoid starvation, father James Cahill and his three sons illegally catch and sell salmon from the river.

Johanna and Greta Cahill are the sisters. Johanna is anxious to get to a bigger city to live, and eventually sets her sights on going to New York City when she meets a woman visiting Ballyroan from New York.

Greta is as shy as Johanna is determined, but eventually they make the trip overseas with Michael Ward, a young man who is a traveller, also known as gypsies.

The book started slow for me, recounting too much of their life in Ireland. While I did find the description of Irish life interesting, it went on too long for my taste. The book sparks to life when the three arrived in New York City and began to build their lives.

The author took great care in crafting characters that the reader cares about, particularly Greta. Keane's vividly describes Greta as looking like a goose-
Lily noticed Greta peering over at her, peering with that look she had so often, her features drawn together in a clump at the center of her face, her neck stuck out ahead of the rest of her body. Greta the Goose, as children often called her.
It's a strong visual that perfectly places Greta's character in the reader's mind.

She clearly did a great deal of research on the lives that immigrants led, and her description of life in 1960's New York City fascinated me. I could see all of the places she described in my mind, feel the heat of the summer, smell the ethnic food from the delis.

Part III of the book consists of letters that young Greta sends home to her mother, along with letters that Michael sends to his father. It is one of the strongest sections of the book, recounted in the first person, and brings the reader right into the minds of these young immigrants, trying to be strong for their family, but clearly missing them as well.

I enjoyed reading of Greta's job at Bloomingdales, and Keane gives the reader an intimate look at how people coming from another land with no money and few skills applicable to city life work to build a life for themselves and their children.

There is an aura of suspense as Michael, Greta and Johanna keep a secret from their family, one that is destined to have repercussions for a long time. At its core, this is a story of how people form a family, and the strength that it takes to come to a new country and build a life. Watching Greta grow from a scared little girl to a strong woman, working in a big city and raising a family with her husband, touched my heart. It is a wonderful read, and fans of Maeve Binchy and Alice McDermott will enjoy it.

Rating 4 of 5 stars
Thanks to BookBrowse.com for providing me with a copy of this book.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! I need to win a copy of this one.