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 naïve 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.)

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