Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
April / May 2018
Recently-published books of Irish and Irish American interest.
Box of Butterflies: Discovering the Unexpected Blessings All Around Us
By Roma Downey
A 10-year-old Roma Downey, mourning the sudden, unexpected death of her vibrant mother, goes to Maureen O’Reilly Downey’s grave to plant her favorite flower – pansies.
“She used to say she thought they looked like butterflies,” Roma writes in her new book. She recalls, “A butterfly flew right in front of us, dancing on the wind. And my dad said, ‘Would you look at that! That wee butterfly could be your mother’s spirit right there.’ As a young girl of ten, the idea that a beautiful butterfly could represent my precious mom gave me great comfort. I’ve always felt that that butterfly was a gift from God, a reminder of his loving presence. Since that day, butterflies have appeared to me throughout my life, bringing with them peace and reassurance. I always see them as a remembrance of my mother and a sign from God that even though we may feel so incredibly alone sometimes, He is always there.”
That story, and those words, contain the theme and message from Box of Butterflies, which combines Roma’s memoir with the poems and prayers that have helped sustain the faith that has carried her through a life full of great challenges and remarkable blessings.
She grew up in Derry during the Troubles and almost died herself in that same graveyard when she was caught in the crossfire of a gun-battle. Yet she focuses on the love and encouragement she received from family and friends, including her neighbors, John and Pat Hume, who named their youngest daughter Maureen in honor of Roma’s mother. Reading this beautiful book, I was struck by the power that comes from being a truly spiritual person. Roma Downey is the real thing. She sees her years playing Monica on the highly-rated and multi-Emmy-nominated series Touched by an Angel, during which she acquired her surrogate mother, Della Reese, as well as the work she did as producer of The Bible, a series seen by over 100 million people, in which she also played Mary, as an opportunity to communicate her certain belief that God is a loving presence, there in sunshine or in shadow. Roma, through her work with Operation Smile, has often matched action with belief, and some of the most affecting parts of the book talk about her work with the founders of Operation Smile, Bill and Kathy Magee, who have been honored by Irish America.
Roma’s mother used to sing her to sleep with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Box of Butterflies is really a beautifully designed prayer book that extends her voice: “Walk on, walk on / with hope in your heart / and you’ll never walk alone.” Roma Downey discovered the truth in this promise, and shares it now with us.
– Mary Pat Kelly
(Howard Books / 256 pp. / $24.99)
By Mike McCormack
Following the ever-winding train of thought of Mayo engineer Marcus Conway, Mike McCormack’s dynamic new work is a study of seamless transitions and unlikely contemplation. Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, Solar Bones wends from Marcus’s commentary on reports in the daily paper and recollections of his father as the tragic hero of his youth to detailed depictions of his wife and children and his relationships with each. For the duration of the novel, Marcus himself remains in his quiet kitchen, the action told through his memory that defies a mysterious immovable force keeping him trapped in solitude on All Souls’ Day, Catholicism’s traditional day for praying for those in purgatory. You know where this is going – it turns out, Marcus is dead, he just doesn’t realize it himself.
But, following in the footsteps of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s groundbreaking modernist Irish language novel Cré na Cille, set six feet under in a catty graveyard where the only news comes when another body is buried, death can’t stop a good Irish story, and each figure of note in Marcus’s life has fascinating complexities of character subtly conveyed as they make their way through days colored by both routine and momentous occasion. His strong, protective wife; creative, ambitious daughter; and spirited, independent-minded son are each illuminated in their flaws as well as their virtues in an off-hand, effortless manner.
Stylistically, the novel also owes much to modernism, running as a single stream of consciousness sentence, as Marcus works his way from one memory to another. When McCormack writes, “this is how you get carried away […] swept up on a rush of words and associations strewn out across the length and breadth of this country,” he is diagnosing the sensation of reading the book itself. The continuous, occasionally frenetic, narration indirectly expresses Marcus’s unaddressed fear that if he abandons his storyteller function, even for the momentary pause to end a sentence, he will cease to live through what narrow channel of existence remains. And while his lack of flourish and intense focus on the people who surround him might make him seem an unlikely protagonist, it’s Marcus’s unique and perceptive way of seeing the world that makes his story essential.
– Mary Gallagher
(Soho Press / 217 pp. / $25)
Saints for All Occasions
By J. Courtney Sullivan
For the better part of her professional career as a novelist, J. Courtney Sullivan, an Irish American born and raised outside of Boston with a background in journalism, has been subtly at work crafting a sub-genre of female-driven tales of family epics and coming-of-age revelations that she deftly solidifies her power over with her most recent public offering.
Following the very different lives of two Irish sisters, Nora and Teresa, who immigrate together to Boston in the 1950s at 21 and 17 respectively, Saints for All Occasions is at its best when its characters are at their worst, usually in situations so frustratingly of their own making that you can’t help but wish they were your real friends so you could shake them out of their willfully blind stubbornness. The novel is masterfully structured to amplify these moments, alternating between action taking place over a few heavy days in 2009 – between a premature death and the subsequent planning and execution of the funeral – and the five decades of family history that led to this point.
In the present century, Nora is several years widowed with three children – John, Bridget, and Brian. Her fourth, Patrick, died in a drunk driving collision. His death sets off the novel. In the present, too, she has not spoken to Teresa, a cloistered nun in Vermont, since the 1970s, nor has she ever told her adult children that she even has a sister. Nora, Teresa, and each of Nora’s living children narrate interwoven chapters, and Sullivan’s handling of the slow revelation of these sisters’ shared secret and animosity is beautifully paced and even more beautifully wrought in an unassuming style that belies a unique and tender complexity. Indeed, each chapter narrated by the children could be a self-contained character study in itself. As the story progresses, of course the truth comes out, but Sullivan’s grace is in disallowing the book from becoming a who-done-it – instead, she gives a remarkably intimate look at the trials of secret-keeping and its attendant, unanticipated consequences and how they manifest across generations.
– Adam Farley
(Knopf / 352 pp. / $26.95)
Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters and Artists Who Helped Build America
Edited by Mark Bailey
It is ethically impossible to begin discussing this new book of essays in this magazine without a disclaimer. Many of the 11 contributing writers have been profiled by Irish America – Rosie O’Donnell, Michael Moore, Tom Hayden, Pierce Brosnan. Others have contributed to this magazine – Tom Deignan and Terry Golway. And the final “Irish life” chronicled in the collection of mini biographies and impacts is Niall O’Dowd, our publisher, who was (no hyperbole) instrumental in orchestrating the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire. So, take what I write with that information at the fore. But also, please believe me – this book is very good.
What makes Nine Irish Lives so compelling is the sheer range of voices and personalities that comprise its endlessly digestible pages. What Bailey has done here is inspired – take historical and contemporary figures and let people whose lives they have influenced write about them. Some of the subjects of the collection’s nine essays are well-known figures of American history – Thomas Addis Emmet, brother of Robert; labor leader Mother Jones; silent film director Rex Ingram. Others will be familiar to students of Irish American history, or the pages of Irish America itself – Margaret Haughery, the orphan savior of New Orleans; Maeve Brennan, the under-appreciated New Yorker writer; Niall O’Dowd. These chapters are successful because of the perspective their authors uniquely give to their subject that galvanizes their place in the history of Irish America while giving insight into the writer’s own life. Pierce Brosnan’s profile of Rex Ingram and Rosie O’Donnell’s profile of Margaret Haughery are standouts of this type of contribution.
But it’s the inclusion of the lives less known that makes this book such an important contribution to the history of the Irish in America. There’s Albert D.J. Cashier, born Jennie Irene Hodgers in County Louth, a Civil War soldier who lived as a man until the state of Illinois forced him into dresses in old age. His story is handled sharply and tenderly by poet Jill McDonough. There’s Samuel S. McClure, whose McClure’s Magazine permanently altered the course of American periodicals away from yellow journalism. His life is relayed with predictable, though not unwelcome, proselytizing by filmmaker Michael Moore. And finally, there’s Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, Nebraska, a remarkable refuge for orphaned or unwanted boys in the 20th century. Mark K. Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, tells his tale.
Moreover, Bailey has selected historical figures whose causes are, or ought to be, non-partisan. Together, these profiles form a template of what the Irish can achieve in America and how America has incontrovertibly benefited from their contribution.
– Adam Farley
(Algonquin Books / 272 pp. / $16.95)