The lovingly written memoir of an Irish-American family, beginning with Thomas Dougan, immigrant and Revolutionary War patriot, and closing with its author at her mother’s funeral in the 1960s.
The history of the Dougans follows the history of the U.S. from colonial times, through the periods of slavery, Westward expansion, industrialization, the World Wars, and the Vietnam era. It chronicles the suffering and success of generation after generation of the family, whose early members seem uniformly brave, generous, enterprising, and hardworking. Once the country has been settled, however, the family begins to show its weaker strains; there are signs of mental illness and alcoholism, as well as bad luck and poor judgment. The narrative becomes a litany of chronological facts–culled from family archives–rather than an exploration of character or molding of a story. In other hands, the raw material of the book would be enough for a dozen novels. Family members are distinguished momentarily, but gradually fade into a collective self, as the book follows the arduous journey of yet another covered wagon heading south, then west, from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. Far too many young women die in childbirth, and parents hold their breath until their children reach the age of 11, whereupon they feel relatively confident their children will survive the harsh life of the pioneers. The Quaker influence is strong; this open-minded family befriends (some of them even marrying) Native Americans, African-Americans, and Jews. The chapter on the generation that supported the Underground Railroad is moving, as is the final portion of the book, in which a war bride reunites with her young husband, only to find him shell-shocked, addicted, and abusive. The author emerges at this point to describe the resulting dysfunctional and battered family of women. The youngest, she dreams of her family's "vanished glory," setting out to research and tell their story.
This portrait of an American family has little lyricism, but a multitude of brief and often tantalizing depictions of admirable Dougan descendants.