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THE WALKING PEOPLE by Mary Beth Keane Kirkus Star


by Mary Beth Keane

Pub Date: May 20th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-547-12652-4
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

From 2005 Pushcart Prize nominee Keane, a richly moving first novel about Irish immigration to America in the late 20th century.

As an 11-year-old child in the 1950s, Michael Ward meets Greta and Johanna Cahill when his gypsy mother dies at the Cahills’ doorstep in isolated western Ireland. Though fascinated, the little Cahill girls consider the caravan of “travelers” less than respectable, although the Cahills themselves are impoverished, living off the salmon they poach from a neighboring landowner. Skinny, nearsighted eight-year-old Greta is considered slightly loopy, especially in contrast to older assertive Johanna, but her life is almost idyllic until her father dies while caught poaching. When adolescent Michael, rejecting his father’s gypsy lifestyle, runs away to the Cahills, Johanna makes him part of her secret plan to immigrate to America. Afraid that Ireland offers no future, Johanna’s mother approves of the move and sends Greta along against her wishes. Ironically, in New York the girls’ roles reverse. Pregnant with Michael’s baby although she does not love him, Johanna becomes depressed and withdrawn while Greta thrives, landing a good job at Bloomingdales. As Greta teaches dependable, streetwise Michael to read, they fall innocently in love. Shortly after baby Julia is born, Johanna runs away, leaving Greta and Michael to raise Julia with the children they eventually have together. Never formally married, they share the ups and downs of a loving working-class life together. At first resentful, then fearing that Johanna will claim Julia and take her away, Greta avoids seeing Johanna or the rest of her family. Having learned the truth, Julia orchestrates a family reunion to coincide with Michael’s retirement (and the painful onset of early Alzheimer’s). Keane gives her characters range and complexity so that there are no victims or villains.

Sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes joyous and tender—one of those stories that lingers in the reader’s memory as a lived experience.