An Irish veteran of the Crimean War and the Civil War tells his story of survival and loss to a priest.
In this historical novel, O’Meara (Going Home for Apples and Other Stories, 2015) borrows the format of a play script, with occasional stage directions (“JOY MOVES TOWARD THE BUNK AND REMOVES HIS BRITISH UNIFORM”) punctuating John Patrick Joy’s series of monologues. The veteran tells his story in the form of a confession made after his regiment suffers severe losses during the Battle of Gettysburg, but his narrative has its roots in his Irish childhood; the potato famine destroyed his family and set him on a globe-trotting military career. In five sections labeled “tales,” the lead, speaking in a dialect made clear and distinctive in the text (“I wandered into the center of the wee town, droopy ‘n dreamin’; wanderin’ more than marchin’, searchin’ for Johnny Callahan”), tells the story of his impoverished childhood and the devastating loss of his immediate family, his work with dead bodies that allowed him to earn a living and survive the years of famine, a stint in the British army that took him to the Caribbean, Canada, and the Crimea (“soldierin’ provides a man some clothes, a fine healthy uniform of sorts, some shoes ‘n a kit o’ personals”), and his eventual immigration to the United States, where he settled in New York’s Five Points neighborhood and had a brief period of moderate comfort and happiness that included a wife and children before he joined the Union Army in order to provide for his family, returning to the horrors of combat.
The book’s well-defined narrative voice and keen sense of historical detail (a vivid scene of bleeding animals for food lays bare the perilous nature of the Irish famine) combine to create an often enjoyable novel, but the book’s frequent errors in spelling, typography, and editing detract from the quality. Arabic numbers are used in Roman numerals (Tale III is rendered as “Tale 111”), and many homophones are used incorrectly (“waive” for “wave,” “heals” for “heels,” “loose” for “lose”) while other words are misspelled even allowing for the use of dialect (“diein’,” “peet,” “pense,”). “It’s” is frequently used as a possessive. The plot is solid, and Joy is a compelling and sympathetic narrator. The unusual drama-style format is well-suited to the novel, placing Joy’s narrative in the tradition of Irish storytelling and drawing the reader’s attention to the unique voice. O’Meara is clearly knowledgeable about the time period, and the book demonstrates an acute understanding of the psychological effects of deprivation and violence. However, the book needs editing of its many grammatical and formatting errors before it is in a position to bring Joy’s story to a discerning audience.
A poorly edited but well-plotted novel with a strong narrative voice provides an insightful look into the 19th-century Irish experience.