Orphaned at 3 when his father committed suicide after his wife ran off with another man, first-time author McMahon traces his 49-year search for his family’s background and the truth about his dad’s death.
McMahon’s book concentrates on his early years through young manhood, focusing on a childhood spent with foster parents and in orphanages and government facilities for wayward youths, with other “[u]nwanted, unloved children on an endless conveyor belt of despair.” “I belonged to no one and no place,” he says. The innocence of a child trying to understand his plight contrasts glaringly with the cruelty and obtuseness of the adult world. No one, including the state, will tell him the truth about his parents. “It’s none of your business, now go away!” one bureaucrat admonishes him. Beaten by police as well as his foster father (“I didn’t know why adults wanted to hit me all of the time”) and forced to wear a dunce cap at the Catholic school he attends, McMahon steals milk money and runs away from home—a pattern repeated through young adulthood. He swipes trifles to survive, gets caught—usually quickly and easily—and is returned home or institutionalized in juvenile detention facilities or, later, in jail or prison. His search for his roots takes him through a series of odd jobs and wild adventures, including a grueling 4,000-mile trek across Australia’s desolate Outback. Simply and beautifully written, with few traces of self-pity, this book provides not only colorful characterizations of the many people, good and bad, in McMahon’s life, but a vivid portrait of the vast, harsh landscapes and seascapes of Australia in the 1950s and ’60s. McMahon sometimes repeats himself, and he gives a bit more detail about his later life than necessary here, but by the time he discovers the truth about his parents and familial roots in Ireland, most readers will be glad they took the journey with him.
A gritty Dickensian tale of hard knocks and tenacity shifted to 20th-century Australia, providing a vivid portrait of the land and its people and one man’s determined drive to solve the riddle of his childhood.