Spanning nearly a century, this historical novel follows one Irishman’s life after escaping the potato famine and immigrating to Canada.
John Doyle comes of age in Wicklow, Ireland, where his family is one of many at odds with those loyal to the British crown. When famine and fever sweep through Ireland, John accepts his landlord’s generous offer to accompany him to Canada and start anew. He hopes to establish a farm and earn enough money to send for his mother, brother, and sisters so they can escape starvation and the workhouse. First, he must survive the long journey across the Atlantic in steerage—another hotbed of disease and death. Upon arriving in Canada, John sets up his farm and seeks a wife. From there, his long, colorful path takes various turns driven by historic events, including the Civil War. Author Doyle based the arc of her novel on her great-grandfather’s story. The result is a vibrant historical tale, full of facts about farm life in rural 19th-century Canada—which crops would survive an early frost (peas, cabbage, fall wheat), for example, and the best way to build a two-story log house. However, choosing to cover the entirety of one man’s long life means that the story ebbs and flows. Similar to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, the novel comprises many well-wrought everyday moments. Without a defined storyline or single climactic moment, however, it rambles. The best parts concern young John’s dangerous journey from Ireland to Canada and his efforts to establish himself. Once Doyle starts to explore the lives of John’s sons, daughters, and other relations, the plot strands begin to tangle and fray.
Fans of historical drama—and romance—will fall in love with the noble John and his sprawling Irish Catholic family.