The Hunger—the Irish famine—forces Ethan McOwen across the Atlantic, where his life eventually gets caught up in the American Civil War.
Even before the harshness of The Hunger the McOwens experience tragedy, most notably for Ethan the loss of his beloved sister, Aislinn. They had both been bookish and imaginative children, and Ethan’s later drive to learn earned him the nickname “The Professor.” The McOwens—Ethan, Da, Mam and Aunt Em—reassemble in Red Hook, N.Y., to start their new lives. Meanwhile, Troy introduces slave families that experience a reality parallel to the McOwens’. Micah is sold from a plantation in South Carolina to a new owner in Charlottesville, Va., and Mary, an educated house slave, works for the Kittredge family in Richmond. Eventually Micah courts Mary, and they develop a plan to escape on Christmas Eve. Only Micah makes it to freedom, however, after an arduous journey across the Blue Ridge and then the Potomac River. During the Civil War Ethan becomes a talented photographer, in fact an assistant to Matthew Brady, and takes well-received pictures of the Irish Brigade, but he’s also wounded at Antietam and eventually marries a nurse, Marcella Arroyo. With the war still raging, Ethan and Marcella make a separate peace by moving to Cooperstown, where the narratives intersect as Micah, a talented carpenter, becomes their handyman as well as Ethan’s friend. Troy ends his narrative with the conclusion of the war as Micah and Mary finally find their way to each other.
While Troy’s narrative starts in Ireland, he tells a quintessentially American story of adversity and triumph.