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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 10, 2009

THE WALKING PEOPLE

By Mary Beth Keane

This Story

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

392 pp. $25

Mary Beth Keane takes the title of her earnest, ambitious first novel from "the walking people" -- "Travellers. Wanderers. Tinkers. Thieves." -- who were Ireland's gypsies, nomads who moved restlessly through the countryside, doing odd jobs, stealing odd provisions, generally making themselves unwelcome among ordinary country people. Whether there are still many such people in the "new" Ireland is a question I cannot answer and Keane does not address, but her larger point is that the Irish are all travelers and that America is the place to which they come.

The literature of the Irish in America, both fiction and nonfiction, is large and rich, ranging from William V. Shannon's fine history, "The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait," to the novels of Edwin O'Connor, George V. Higgins and Dennis Lehane. The work of all three of these novelists is set in Boston. "The Walking People," once it gets its central characters to the United States, is set in New York, but it shares with its distinguished predecessors a sense of the Irish as a race apart, yearning to become wholly American yet unable to resist "the tug from Ireland," the connection to their ancient roots that proves just about unbreakable.

The principal characters of "The Walking People" are Greta Cahill, a quiet, unprepossessing country girl who turns out to be more resourceful and intelligent than anyone had expected, and Michael Ward, the son of a tinker who wants nothing so much as to abandon his people's roving ways and fulfill his "dream of settling." They first encounter each other as children in Ballyroan, where Michael's family has stopped for a while and where Greta's family lives. It is a hamlet "at the very western edge of Ireland," and it epitomizes the history of rural Ireland:

"By 1956, despite centuries of gathering seaweed from the high sea ledges, drying it, giving it to the children to chew or keep for the flower beds, despite generation after generation of the same families driving cattle, footing turf, churning butter, bleeding the fall pig from the ceiling rafter of a dark back room before covering him with salt the size of hailstones and closing him up in his barrel, despite all the narrow headstones sticking out of the fields like milk teeth, five of the seven houses in Ballyroan were abandoned, their windows boarded, their inhabitants gone to England or Australia or Canada or America. Every one of these families said they were certain they'd come back one day, once they had their legs under them, once they'd put aside a little money to bring back home and start again, and when that day came, could they please write the Cahills to take the boards off the windows, light the fire in the kitchen, let the air and sunshine in."

Difficult things happen to Greta and Michael while they are still young. His mother is killed when the cart she is driving is smashed up by a runaway horse, and her father dies after being shot while poaching a neighbor's salmon. Two of Greta's adult brothers emigrate to Australia, leaving her with her mother, her feisty older sister, Johanna, and another brother, who is filled with energy and native intelligence but hampered by a cleft palate. Johanna gets it into her head to go to America -- the girls are teenagers by now, in 1963 -- even though the process is complicated: "Passport must be applied for, picture taken, contacts made on the other side, a sponsor found, money saved or acquired," et cetera. But she finds a friend in a young American woman who has come back to Ballyroan to bury her mother, and eventually the girls sail for New York.

They are accompanied by Michael, who has rebelled against his family and its culture: "They'd had ideas about what he should do with his life, about what was possible, and he'd matched them with his own ideas. Giving warning would have only made the process more miserable for both sides. No, the only thing to do was to up and leave. It wasn't that he didn't love them -- anyone could see that." Johanna had lured Michael into joining them by teasing him sexually, and on the voyage tease turns into the real thing, with fateful consequences: Not long after they arrive in New York, Johanna discovers she is pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, Julia.

Johanna isn't fit for motherhood, though, at least right now, and she heads off on a westward jaunt that eventually lands her in San Francisco. Greta and Michael are left to pick up the pieces, which they do more easily than one might expect because they fall in love. "We don't settle in places," Michael realizes. "We settle in people." They never marry, but they go on to have two children of their own and to raise Julia as theirs. From time to time Julia asks questions that suggest she is "testing them" about her birth, but they stick to a "simple" story: "Michael had helped Greta and Johanna with their luggage when they boarded the ship in 1963. He and Greta quickly fell in love. They were careless, and Greta got pregnant with Julia. When they realized what had happened Greta and Michael moved in together, and Johanna went on to California. They've not regretted it a single day since."

It's a secret waiting to be uncovered, of course, and how that comes to pass provides the drama of the second half of "The Walking People." What's more interesting, though, is the gradual Americanization of Greta and Michael. They never turn their backs on Ireland, yet "New York had turned out to be the place where Greta became a mother, became partner to a man, became an earner of steady wages, a navigator of public transportation, an expert in building maintenance, a maven of local parks and playgrounds, a master of coupon shopping." She works first at Bloomingdale's, then at Macy's, while a succession of jobs finally lands Michael underground as a sandhog, digging a huge new water tunnel to supply the city. Their old country no longer is theirs:

"Greta didn't think of herself as an American, but America had been good to her. It bothered the others, Greta had realized a few years earlier, that Ireland ended up doing so well. They were proud, of course, but also taken completely by surprise. They'd worked so hard to bring Ireland to America as an intact place that they could live inside, and they had succeeded, keeping their customs the same as they were in the year they'd left, making the preservation of the old ways a new kind of religion. They didn't realize until it was too late that home had moved on, grown up, left the old customs behind. It was as if these exiles had used every last dollar to bet on a horse they didn't own, didn't love, weren't interested in loving, but one that had promised to give them the best return. It was as if that horse had been winning, as expected, for the entire race. Winning by yards, in fact. . . . And just as they bent their heads to calculate their earnings, that horse was left behind by the wild card, the underdog, the one they'd have preferred to lay their bet down for in the first place."

All of which is pure hindsight. Greta and Michael are Americans now, as their children most certainly are, and, by the way, the "new" Ireland has taken a considerable economic whack since "The Walking People" was set in type. Novelists, like journalists, should beware of passing sweeping judgments, which have a way of being overtaken by events. Still, "The Walking People" is thoughtful and appealing. It doesn't have much narrative energy -- it actually slows down after Greta, Johanna and Michael leave Ireland -- and at times Keane's prose strains for lyrical effect, but it's a solid, intelligent piece of work.

yardleyj@washpost.com




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