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Free Preview: The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

Free Preview: The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

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Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in the west of Ireland until she found herself on a ship bound for New York, along with her sister Johanna and a boy named Michael Ward. Labeled a "softheaded goose" by her family, Greta discovers that in America she can fall in love, raise her own family, and earn a living. Though she longs to return and show her family what she has made of herself, her decision to spare her children knowledge of a secret in her past forces her to keep her life in New York separate from the life she once loved in Ireland, and tears her apart from the people she is closest to. Even fifty years later, when the Ireland of her memory bears little resemblance to that of present day, she fears that it is still possible to lose all when she discovers that her children—with the best of intentions— have conspired to unite the worlds she’s so carefully kept separate for decades. A beautifully old-fashioned novel, The Walking People is a debut of remarkable range and power.
Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in the west of Ireland until she found herself on a ship bound for New York, along with her sister Johanna and a boy named Michael Ward. Labeled a "softheaded goose" by her family, Greta discovers that in America she can fall in love, raise her own family, and earn a living. Though she longs to return and show her family what she has made of herself, her decision to spare her children knowledge of a secret in her past forces her to keep her life in New York separate from the life she once loved in Ireland, and tears her apart from the people she is closest to. Even fifty years later, when the Ireland of her memory bears little resemblance to that of present day, she fears that it is still possible to lose all when she discovers that her children—with the best of intentions— have conspired to unite the worlds she’s so carefully kept separate for decades. A beautifully old-fashioned novel, The Walking People is a debut of remarkable range and power.

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Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Aug 04, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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12/03/2014

 
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At home in ballyroan,
in the single-story cottage that stoodbeside the sea, in the bed she shared with her older sister, eight-year-old Greta Cahill woke before dawn to a sound that was not the ocean,was not the animals bawling into the wind, was not a slammed gate,a clanging cowbell, or the rain beating on the gable. The sound wasdifferent, it was a first, and to hear it better Greta pushed the layers of blankets away from her shoulders and sat up.“You’re letting in the cold,” Johanna said into the dark withoutwhispering, and tugged at the blankets Greta had pushed away. Asthey struggled, a faint whiff of salmon stopped Gretas hands. She hadforgotten that part of last night’s catch was lined up on a shallow trayand resting in the emptied top drawer of the dresser she and Johannashared. Greta pictured the six flat bodies in a neat row
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tails to theback, heads to the front, all split along the backbone and buried in salt.The smell was barely noticeable so far, but Greta knew that in a fewmore hours the delicate tang of the drying fish would be like an itchinside her nose that could not be scratched. The salt would pull the wa-ter from the salmon’s river-logged bodies, and it would be Johanna’sjob to drain the brine with Greta looking on and their mother standingbehind saying, “Are you watching, Greta? Are you seeing how yoursister does it?”
 
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“Christ,” Johanna said, and pressed her face to her pillow. Gretaknew what her sister was thinking. Last night, late, after listening tothe usual activity at the back door and then in the kitchen, and afterfollowing the tsk-tsk of their mother’s slippers as she scurried aroundthe cottage to the other hiding places, Johanna had sat up in bed justas Lily opened their door and said she’d not have any fish in her room,thank you very much.Holding the tray flat so the salt wouldn’t spill, Lily had set thelantern on the floor, placed the tray in the drawer, and reached overto give Johanna a lug. Smart, fast, her hand fell from the dark spaceabove their bed and caught Johanna square on the cheek. There weresalmon in drawers all over the cottage and in the highest cabinet of thepress in the hall.Now Johanna flipped over to her back as Greta worked to identifythe sound that had woken her. “There was blood left last time,” Jo-hanna said. “She says they’re all cleaned, but
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Greta put her hand over Johanna’s mouth and held a finger in the air.“Listen,” she said. Then Johanna heard it too. Greta could tell by theway her sister’s back went rigid and her head lifted from the pillow.“What is it?” Johanna asked. “A horse and cart,” she answeredherself a second later, and jumped out of bed to go to the window.“Coming fast.” It was bouncing violently on the stones and dips inthe road, the wood of the cart splintering as it slammed against theiron hitch. For a half second here and there the world went silent, andGreta cringed in expectation of the airborne cart landing with a clat-ter. The racket grew louder as it came closer, rolling toward their cot-tage like thunder, like a stampede. The bedroom window didn’t facethe road, but Johanna stayed there, hopping from foot to foot on thewood planks of the floor as she peered through the gray-green light.Just as Greta was about to shout for their mother, they heard the crash,an explosion of wood coming to a sudden halt against stone and hardground, followed by the everyday sound of a horse galloping away.“Tom,” Greta heard Lily say on the other side of the wall. “Get up.”Johanna opened the door of their bedroom and the cold of the hallswept into the room just as cruelly as if they’d stepped directly out-side.
 
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“You stay where you are,” Big Tom said when he emerged from hisbedroom and saw Johanna. “Don’t make me say it twice.” He walkedover to her, looked over her head to Greta, who was still in bed, andthen to every corner of the room. “And keep that drawer well closed.”“It’s something to do with the salmon,” Johanna said when he left,still hopping from foot to foot. Greta didn’t understand about thesalmon, so she didn’t answer. She suspected that Johanna didn’t under-stand either but liked to pretend that she did.In another minute Lily came out, tying the belt of her long car-digan, and told Johanna to either get back under the covers or getdressed. “You too,” she said to Greta. She lit the paraffin lamp in thehall, twisting the knob to raise the wick and make the yellow flamehigher. The boys
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Jack, Little Tom, and Padraic
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were already out-side with Big Tom; Greta could hear the low hum of their voices trav-eling on the heavy air of dawn. As her much older brothers, they ex-isted for Greta as a unit, all roughly the same age
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twenty, nineteen,eighteen
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all tall, black hair, black stubble on their cheeks by the endof each day. The only thing that kept them from being three identicalspokes on the same wheel was Little Tom, who was born with his toplip attached to the bottom of his nose and something wrong with theinside of his mouth.Greta squinted to find Johanna. “What’s happening? Did Mammygo out too?” She felt for the lump of wool stockings she’d tied andleft beside her bed the night before, and then for the navy cardiganthat hung alongside Johanna’s at the back of the door. “Johanna?” shesaid, turning around and stretching her neck toward the shadowedcorners of the room. “Are you there?” She felt a draft from the frontdoor opening and closing, and she heard the other doors in the cottageshaking in their frames.“Well, look it
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” Big Tom shouted from outside a moment later.His voice was big, full of tobacco, turf smoke, and crushed seashellswhipped up by the wind. “Get inside, girl. Lily! Get this child inside!”Lily had just plunged her hands into the water pail in the kitchen whenshe heard him and rushed out of the house to catch Johanna, who’dtaken off in a run across the yard to the field, where a woman’s bodylay in the grass.

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