Pavees, or travelers, are a distinctive Irish sub-culture which Cummins celebrates in this uneven first novel, following her memoir A Rip in Heaven (2004).
They criss-cross Ireland in their wagons, mending pots and pans (hence the derogatory “tinkers”) and doing farm work, though by 1959, when the novel is set, the work is drying up. We see them through the eyes of 11-year-old Christy Hurley, a lively kid but one racked by guilt, because his mam died in childbirth and he feels he killed her, despite the protestations of his well-meaning father. Christy’s role model is his Grandda; he has a fond memory of helping Stephen, as capable as any vet, birth two foals for a desperate farmer. They kept the sickly one; now the colt Jack is Christy’s best friend. Grandda has just died as the novel opens; according to Pavee custom, his wagon and possessions must be burned. Christy grabs a newspaper photo from the flames, sensing its significance, though he can’t figure out the man, woman and baby it depicts, and he has another preoccupation: school. His first time. Though he loves reading, he’s stuck in with the third graders, but the staff are friendly; there’s even a sweet, mothering nun, a welcome change from the usual ruler-wielding harpy. Cummins does a fine job showing us Pavee culture: the joy of the open road, the fear of houses (they induce claustrophobia), the dutiful Catholicism, the need for mooching (panhandling) and occasional petty theft. But the coming-of-age narrative is weak. Christy does some sleuthing and discovers he’s the baby in that photograph; his mother never died in childbirth. That was a lie, his shame-faced father explains, at great length. What follows is a frantic moonlit ride, bullets, blood and a torrent of tears as Christy learns about the “dream-poison of love.” It’s all over-the-top, a far cry from the powerful realism of that barnyard birthing.
Uneven, but worth reading for its intimate look at a little-known community.