MINA by Jonatha Ceely


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A young Irishwoman survives the Great Famine and a shipwreck but still dreams of escaping to America.

Ceely’s tale is based on a bundle of pages she discovered several years ago in the attic of an old upstate New York house. The result, she tells us, is Mina, “a transcription of the manuscript I found.” It’s 1848, and young “Paddy” Pigot, like all Famine refugees, has to hustle for a living in England—even to the point of changing his sex. For “Paddy” is really Mina, a young woman who passed herself off as a man in order to find work as a stablehand on a country estate. Eventually, Mina ends up working in the kitchen as an assistant to Mr. Serle, the Italian chef, but by then it’s too late to admit her ruse, and she continues as a man. She even shares a room with Mr. Serle, a kindly man who takes her under his wing and keeps quiet about the secret of her sex when she confides in him—telling him how, after their parents (like nearly everyone else in their village) died of starvation, Mina and her brother walked to Dublin and bought passage to America aboard the Abigail but were separated when the ship caught fire and sank. Mina was rescued, but her brother was taken aboard a ship bound for New York. That was when, destitute and alone, Mina cut her hair and sought work to escape the other bleak alternatives (prostitution or the poorhouse). After learning her story, Searle shares his own secret with Mina: He’s a Jew who fled Rome as a young man to escape the poverty of the ghetto. Both Searle and Mina dream of making their way to America—Mina to find her brother, Searle to open a restaurant and make his fortune. Could they, perhaps, succeed together where they failed on their own?

Long-winded and rather slow, with little by way of plot development or surprise, Ceely’s first nevertheless offers a good sketch of Victorian life with some nice historical shading.

Pub Date: March 30th, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-33690-X
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2004