Friday, June 5, 2009

Review: The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

Opening in 2007 on Michael Ward's last day as a sandhog in NYC, this novel of the Irish immigrant experience is a story of family, of expectations, of place, of love, and lies. Michael and Greta have made a life for themselves in America, far from the drizzly Irish spit of land the Cahills inhabited forever. While they never lost their love of Ireland and an attachment to their roots, they never returned and they never told their children the full story of their lives. But with the advent of Michael's retirement, the two worlds they have kept compartmentalized are going to come crashing together, Ireland coming to life out of the stories they told their children for years. As the collision comes closer, the reader is taken back in time to the Ireland of Greta and Michael's childhoods.

Greta Cahill was the baby of the family, forgetful, and odd. She spent her early years always being labelled as the simple child, growing up in the shadow of her bolder, self-confident sister. And she trails Johanna as they meet a traveller family after Julia Ward, the mother in this traveller family, is thrown from a horse and killed practically on their doorstep. Michael Ward, Julia's son, will always hold this place and his mother's grave in his heart, coming back to the Cahill family when he commits the ultimate sin against the travellers, wanting to settle. And it is from this lonely place that Michael, Johanna, and Greta leave on a voyage to America that will leave none of them the same. Through Michael and Greta's life as young parents to their goal of buying a home in the suburbs, the reader follows along as they build a life in a new country that allows them to reinvent themselves.

Keane has written a captivating story, powerful in its themes of family and love. She has gracefully tackled the difficult task of creating characters who change significantly, believably, and yet remain true to their original personas. And while she starts with a larger cast, the winnowing down of characters to focus most strongly on Greta and Michael is achieved effortlessly. The scrimping and saving to make an easier life for their children and the intense desire to better themselves in ways closed to them in Ireland is very true to the immigrant experience as played out in so many newly Americanized families, certainly in the 1950's and 60's as well as today. And Keane has captured it incredibly well.

The only quibble I had with the storyline was the issue of the "big secret" and my feeling of letdown that this thing that seemed less than immense was something that they hid from their children, making it the driving force behind the stress at mixing Ireland and America. Of course, this quibble is coming squarely from my own perspective on how I would handle a situation like this and that is perhaps incredibly unfair given the religious and generational gap (although I was highly annoyed with the daughter--close to my own age--who pushed the confrontation) between the characters and me. And while so much hinged on this secret, I still enjoyed the book for its depth, its evocation of place (in Ireland and New York City), its complex and fully-rounded characters, and its insight into the immigrant experience (both for what drove them from their native land and what they experienced once they arrived in their new country).

1 comment:

  1. This one has been on my TBR list for a while. Good review!


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