by Laim O'Flaherty
This novel describes what happened in one impoverished mountain region of Ireland when famine spread because potato crops failed. It starts out in one small family living on a plot of rented land; their initial discovery from a neighbor that disease is spreading through the potato fields which at first is not their biggest concern as one of their family members is sick, another expecting her first child. When it becomes apparent that most of the potatoes are ruined, at first the people turn to other means: they eat their sheep, or move in with better-off family neighbors, or travel down to the village to seek work. But as the second planting season comes and even more potatoes fail, things start to get serious and the entire community is afflicted. Famine doesn't just follow what sufferings the peasants faced but moves through a whole cast of characters: the local shopkeeper, village priest, English landlords and other public figures. When the scope of disaster becomes clear, everyone reacts differently. Some attempt to help the poor but are inept. Others only look out for their own interests, try to take advantage of the situation, or simply ignore what's going on. The poor cling to each other or turn on their friends; some disappear into the mountains or try to leave the country, others riot and take up arms against those who promised help and failed to bring it. They watch in despair as their few remaining animals are confiscated by the landlords for unpaid rent, their other crops exported to make up for losses, and they are left with nothing. In the end, disease spreads, children starve, old people sit in a stupor in empty houses. Only one of the main characters escapes with any hope for the future.
It's really very dismal. I thought, when I first began reading, that it was going to stick with the initial family, the Kilmartins, and describe everything through their experience (rather like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was told mostly from the viewpoint of the Joad family). But actually the bulk of it jumps around between the landlord, village doctor and religious leaders, describing lots of intrigues, suspicions and meetings that ultimately just confused or bored me. I was loosing interest in the middle but pressed on, simply wanting to know what happened. The final chapters focused back on the poor family again, and that felt more immediate and interesting. It really is a sad story but unfortunately the characters were portrayed with so little emotion I didn't really feel for any of them.
I read this book hoping I'd learn more about what happened when the potato blight caused famine throughout Ireland in the 1800's. I'm still vague on many of the details but have a more general picture of it now. I only wish the story had been told better.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 466 pages, 1937
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A Cuban in London