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.

No comments: