Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Divine Compass: A Review

Reviewed by Phyllis Andolsek
Interlacing of individual lives in day to day life often appear to be random and without special purpose until those lives are viewed in retrospect. Several collections of personal letters and journals (circa 1860-1910) revealed that premise to inspire this historical novel, Divine Compass by Irene Bonk Koch.

In this condensed saga, the characters are neither good nor bad but merely human as they negotiate their circumstances within the limits of inherent strengths and frailties. This tale deals with bargained marriage, spinster independence, divorce, deception and thievery in a fictionalized account of real persons interacting by chance or by choice. During the aftermath of the American Civil War, many persons were lured to the western territories in search of independence and prosperity. A diverse mix of people crossed paths to form connections that ultimately affected their lives.

The story explores family influence, personal ambition, luck and disillusionment with magnificent accuracy of the era's language and attitudes. Although times and mores change, each generation reveals similar needs and motivations in the inevitable compromise of each life. The final outcome is an understanding that attempts to balance gratitude and regret. A good read, the tale moves swiftly without sacrifice of description or character detail in a manner that vividly reveals the subtle motivations and personalities engaged in particular circumstances. The reader is left with an understanding of the characters as real persons and empathy for their struggles. Most profound is the author's ability to accurately portray male and female attitudes and behavior in keeping with their time while confirming that times change but the inner workings of humans remain much the same from generation to generation

Phyllis Andolsek can be reached at: ikewrite@adelphia.net

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Leaving Ireland: Irish Immigrants in America

Ann Moore’s novel Leaving Ireland begins where its prequel, Gracelin O’Malley, ended. It is a time of good-byes and new beginnings for Grace, who is now compelled to leave Ireland and join her brother Sean in America. Now widowed, and wanted by the authorities for shooting a British soldier, she must leave her newborn son behind; only Mary Kate, her young daughter, accompanies her on the voyage to a new home.

As with Gracelin O’Malley, this second book includes great historical detail, of life for poor immigrants in America as well as the continuing struggle back in Ireland during the late 1840s. Leaving Ireland also includes a look at other American phenomena of the time: slavery (and its runaway slaves), and the early days of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). New characters introduced include a young Irish boy, Liam Kelley, and Captain Peter Reinders. With its multiple-focus on different issues, Leaving Ireland is less dark in its tone. After all, even the worst situations in America are better than in Ireland. Still, the author does not hide the problems of 19th century America, including the horrid living conditions in the New York City slums and the social class structure with its all too evident prejudice against the Irish. 1840s New York is also a world rife with government corruption and unscrupulous hucksters out for a quick buck.

Though written as a stand-alone novel, Leaving Ireland is clearly a sequel, the continuing life of Grace and her loved ones. The story continues the characters and subplots from Ireland, as we see more of Abban, Barbara, and Julia Martin—the few surviving friends still in Ireland. As a transition in Grace’s life, much of the book details the voyage over, and the characters represent the typical Irish experience. At first they identify themselves as Irish, and remain deeply involved in America’s assistance to their homeland. Later on, Sean and Grace discover what it means to really be American, to identify with the new country. Thus Leaving Ireland conveys the heart of these brave and desperate immigrants, how they made that necessary shift to a new life.

One curious (and slightly annoying, to me at least) change in Leaving Ireland concerns the characters’ age progression. From the chronology in Gracelin O’Malley it is clear that by the fall of 1847 Grace is only 18 years old, and her daughter Mary Kate still two years old. Yet this book begins with Grace inexplicably older, age 20; and Mary Kate is suddenly three years old, almost four. Still, this is a minor inconsistency in an otherwise enjoyable historical fiction tale.

Like Gracelin O’Malley, this book includes a question-answer "conversation" with the author, and discussion questions for groups. Also like the first book, Leaving Ireland has a cliffhanging, suspenseful ending, to leave the reader eagerly looking forward to the next book—and the author’s notes at the end indicate that at least one more book is forthcoming.

Thursday, May 1, 2003

Gracelin O'Malley: An Ireland Story

Ann Moore’s novel, Gracelin O’Malley, begins a heartwarming, inspiring story about a young Irish woman during the 1840s. At age 15, Gracelin agrees to marry the local English Squire to help her family pay the rent. Through the next few years, Gracelin experiences both her husband’s increasing cruelty, and the country’s suffering during the potato famine. She lives with the rejection of higher-society English, and longs for visits with her family, including crippled brother Sean and her grandmother. Through the years she matures, no longer the simple and na├»ve maiden, yet strong in courage and a hope that goes beyond her circumstances.

The supporting characters are also engaging: embittered Da, who distrusts the Catholic Church; her loving grandmother who took the place of her mother after she died. We see other Irish families, such as the McDonaghs, Catholic peasants headed by a weak-willed father who often deserts the family. Brigid Sullivan is servant to the Squire and Grace, and we meet her children—teenage Moira, and young Nolan. Lord Evans also enters the picture, as an Englishman who helps the Irish.

A good historical novel should also convey history to the reader, and Gracelin O’Malley excels here as well. Most of the story takes place from 1844 to 1847, and several characters become involved in the political unrest, in the Young Irelanders. The setting is a near contemporary with the Thoene’s "Galway Chronicles," (see reviews of Only the River Runs Free and Of Men and Of Angels) and makes reference to Daniel O’Connell, the Repeal Movement and the Monster meetings of 1844—events detailed in that series. But now O’Connell is dead, and famine quickly decimates the Irish. Other historical figures referenced here include John Mitchel (of the inflammatory, anti-British publication The Nation) and William Smith O’Brien, a minor character involved with the fictional Morgan McDonagh and Sean O’Malley.

Yet beyond the politics of the day were the real Irish people, the heart and soul of Ireland. Gracelin O’Malley so captures that spirit, with a detailed, honest look at the hardships of the Irish. The picture is not always pretty, often including graphic descriptions of starving, malnourished bodies, and the horrid smells of disease and poor sanitation both in the city and country.

An interesting plot and strong characters bring a powerful story in Gracelin O’Malley. The author avoids black-and-white stereotypes of characters, showing both good and bad English, as well as good and bad Irish. One Englishman is proud and cruel, yet another, a young soldier, is challenged by Gracelin’s spirited words about her homeland. Ann Moore has written an excellent tribute to Ireland and its people with this book, a great start to a still-developing series. (Leaving Ireland is the sequel, and the author suggests that at least a third book is in the works.)