Tuesday, July 07, 2009
The Walking People
Mary Beth Keane
I first read about this book at Tara’s Books and Cooks blog. Tara wrote a lovely review that had me looking for the book in my library’s online catalogue. Imagine my surprise when they actually had it! Also, imagine my surprise when they charged me 50 cents for the hold request. Not that I begrudge the library 50 cents, but they could have told me!
The book was worth the 50 cents, although I’m still feeling a bit jarred by the ending. Talk about avoiding confrontation!
Oh. You probably want to know what it’s about before I go off on the ending, huh? Fair enough.
The story starts in Ireland in 1956. (Okay, there’s a prologue set in 2007, but I’m not starting there.) The Cahill family lives in west, west, west Ireland. In other words, they live in the teensy remote village of Ballyroan, a village that has pretty much died. Big Tom and his wife Lily are struggling to support their three grown sons and two younger daughters. It is on the two daughters, Johanna and Greta, that the story centers. Greta appears to be a bit off, although it’s nothing anyone can put their finger on. She is the baby of the family and happy to stay close to home. Intrepid Johanna, on the other hand, is always wondering and wandering, and her inquisitive nature leads her into the tinker’s camp. The tinkerers are gypsies, or the Walking People from which the novel takes its name.
Next thing you know, it’s the 1960s and Ballyroan is even deader than it was in the 1950s, if that’s possible. Johanna is still dreaming of escape. When one of the tinkers returns to the village, Johanna targets the young man (Michael) and plots her future. Quicker than you can say brown bread, Michael finds himself in New York with Johanna and Greta.
More stuff happens. And this time we get to read about most of it through the letters that pass back and forth between Ireland and New York. Good stuff.
Then it’s the 1970s and Michael and Greta have settled down into family life.
Then it’s the 1980s and there’s some weird family estrangement that eldest daughter Julia is a bit curious about.
Then it’s 2007 (hey, just like in the prologue, imagine that) and Michael is retiring from over 30 years as a sandhog. There are a few surprises in store. Some happen, some are about to happen.
Seriously. Just before the big resolution (or whatever), the book ends. This is worse than Edgar Sawtelle in terms of whammo endings, in my opinion. Because we’re talking about people here, not dogs! Oh sure, it doesn’t have the drama of Edgar Sawtelle. This is a quiet novel about family and relationships. There is no underlying Hamlet-ness happening. But I still want the final scene!!!!
Also, remember our conversation about titles? Well, I have a bone to pick with this one. The Walking People play a minor role. Well, except for Michael. He’s got a pretty big role. And yes, you can argue for deeper meaning and recurring themes. But Michael and Greta don’t walk. They stay. And since the book is mostly about them, that would be why I have issues.
But then, I always seem to have issues. Still, it’s a good book. You should read it. If you like stories about Ireland and immigrations and family relationships.