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Many worlds come clear to us: the underworld of the ‘sandhogs,’ the countryside of the west of Ireland, the camps of the travellers, the counters of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. This is an astonishing debut, and it marks the appearance of a truly major writer.” ―Mary Gordon “THE WALKING PEOPLE is an irresistible blend of narrative and syntactic authenticity.” ―Billy Collins, United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003 January 2009 ** DEBUT FICTION ** Dear Editor/Producer, Based in part on her mother’s stories of Ireland and her father’s stories about working as a “sandhog” in the water tunnels of New York City, THE WALKING PEOPLE is Mary Beth Keane’s moving, epic paean to memory and family. THE WALKING PEOPLE introduces us to Greta Cahill, a young girl from a rural village in the west of Ireland. Greta is slow, near-sighted, and labeled a “soft-headed goose” by her mother. Unexpectedly, she finds herself on a ship bound for New York, along with her sister Johanna and a “traveller” boy named Michael Ward―and finds that, in America, she can fall in love, raise her own family, and earn a living. Her decision to spare her children knowledge of darkness in her past forces Greta to keep her new life separate from the life she once loved in Ireland. But, fifty years later, she realizes that it is still possible to lose everything when her children―with the best of intentions―conspire to unite the worlds she's so carefully kept apart for decades. Simultaneously hopeful and wistful, tragic and beautiful, THE WALKING PEOPLE is a debut of remarkable range and power. MARY BETH KEANE attended Barnard College and earned an MFA from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. She was a winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Prize in 2004 and was a 2005 Pushcart Prize nominee. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and son. For more information, visit: www.marybethkeane.com Sincerely, Pub date: May
20, 2009; $25.00; 392 pages
Advance praise for THE WALKING PEOPLE
"In her debut, Keane marries a deliciously old-fashioned style of storytelling with a fresh take on the immigrant experience. ... Tracking the family from 1956 to the present, Keane gives a heartfelt account of their pain and their joy while also minutely exploring varied settings and occupations. A warm, involving family drama that makes a triumph of Greta's transformation from misfit to capable wife and mother." ―Booklist "Debut author Keane offers an extended meditation on leaving, finding and making home in a novel focused on the new Irish immigrant experience. ... Greta is an appealing character lacking in nostalgia. Her romance is also authentic and unsentimental ... her coming-of-age reflects a fresh take on the lives recent immigrants can create." ―Publishers Weekly “This is a richly detailed, powerfully evocative novel about two young sisters from a poor, rural family in western Ireland who dream of coming to America. Keane tells an archetypal American story about penniless European immigrants seeking opportunity here, and she brings it robustly to life in ways that help us to see its long-lasting ability to inspire. There is a gritty, courageous immediacy to Keane's realism, as she renders scene after scene with great emotional intensity. The story spans many years (from 1956 to 2007), and Keane skillfully handles the shifting, deepening dynamics within this closeknit family. The central relationship is between the two sisters: older sister Johanna, who is impetuous and self-involved, and Greta, the slightly odd yet deeply sympathetic younger sister, who adores Johanna. Keane masterfully follows Greta's changing relationship with Johanna across the decades—beginning with worship and ending in estrangement—and the reader feels the power of these changes profoundly. Keane's first novel is as powerful as it is relevant. Enthusiastically recommended.” ―Library Journal "Mary Beth Keane has produced a compelling drama of transatlantic Irish life, told with a truthfulness that is felt not only in the sweep and charm of the story but in its very sentences. THE WALKING PEOPLE is an irresistible blend of narrative and syntactic authenticity." ―Billy Collins, United States Poet Laureate 2001-2003 "Mary Beth Keane's THE WALKING PEOPLE is a marvel of originality and accomplishment. It introduces us to lives that are at once entirely unfamiliar and yet completely resonant. Keane writes about Ireland and the Irish in a completely new way; she explores the situation of "new" immigrants with a Balzacian eye for detail and the implications of class, money, and social situation. At the same time, she writes with a style that is simultaneously pellucid and poetic; many worlds come clear to us, the underworld of the "sandhogs," the countryside of the West of Ireland, the camps of the travelers, the counters of Macy's and Bloomingdales. This is an astonishing debut, and it marks the appearance of a truly major writer." ―Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother
At hom e i n b a l ly roa n , in the single-story cottage that stood beside the sea, in the bed she shared with her older sister, eight-yearold 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 was different, 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 without whispering, and tugged at the blankets Greta had pushed away. As they struggled, a faint whiff of salmon stopped Greta’s hands. She had forgotten that part of last night’s catch was lined up on a shallow tray and resting in the emptied top drawer of the dresser she and Johanna shared. Greta pictured the six ﬂat bodies in a neat row — tails to the back, 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 few more hours the delicate tang of the drying ﬁsh would be like an itch inside her nose that could not be scratched. The salt would pull the water from the salmon’s river-logged bodies, and it would be Johanna’s job to drain the brine with Greta looking on and their mother standing behind saying, “Are you watching, Greta? Are you seeing how your sister does it?”
“Christ,” Johanna said, and pressed her face to her pillow. Greta knew what her sister was thinking. Last night, late, after listening to the usual activity at the back door and then in the kitchen, and after following the tsk-tsk of their mother’s slippers as she scurried around the cottage to the other hiding places, Johanna had sat up in bed just as 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 the lantern on the ﬂoor, placed the tray in the drawer, and reached over to give Johanna a lug. Smart, fast, her hand fell from the dark space above their bed and caught Johanna square on the cheek. There were salmon in drawers all over the cottage and in the highest cabinet of the press in the hall. Now Johanna ﬂipped over to her back as Greta worked to identify the sound that had woken her. “There was blood left last time,” Johanna said. “She says they’re all cleaned, but —” 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 the way her sister’s back went rigid and her head lifted from the pillow. “What is it?” Johanna asked. “A horse and cart,” she answered herself a second later, and jumped out of bed to go to the window. “Coming fast.” It was bouncing violently on the stones and dips in the road, the wood of the cart splintering as it slammed against the iron hitch. For a half second here and there the world went silent, and Greta cringed in expectation of the airborne cart landing with a clatter. The racket grew louder as it came closer, rolling toward their cottage like thunder, like a stampede. The bedroom window didn’t face the road, but Johanna stayed there, hopping from foot to foot on the wood 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 hard ground, 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 hall swept into the room just as cruelly as if they’d stepped directly outside.
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“You stay where you are,” Big Tom said when he emerged from his bedroom and saw Johanna. “Don’t make me say it twice.” He walked over to her, looked over her head to Greta, who was still in bed, and then 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 the salmon, so she didn’t answer. She suspected that Johanna didn’t understand either but liked to pretend that she did. In another minute Lily came out, tying the belt of her long cardigan, and told Johanna to either get back under the covers or get dressed. “You too,” she said to Greta. She lit the parafﬁn lamp in the hall, twisting the knob to raise the wick and make the yellow ﬂame higher. The boys — Jack, Little Tom, and Padraic — were already outside with Big Tom; Greta could hear the low hum of their voices traveling on the heavy air of dawn. As her much older brothers, they existed for Greta as a unit, all roughly the same age — twenty, nineteen, eighteen — all tall, black hair, black stubble on their cheeks by the end of each day. The only thing that kept them from being three identical spokes on the same wheel was Little Tom, who was born with his top lip attached to the bottom of his nose and something wrong with the inside of his mouth. Greta squinted to ﬁnd Johanna. “What’s happening? Did Mammy go out too?” She felt for the lump of wool stockings she’d tied and left beside her bed the night before, and then for the navy cardigan that hung alongside Johanna’s at the back of the door. “Johanna?” she said, turning around and stretching her neck toward the shadowed corners of the room. “Are you there?” She felt a draft from the front door opening and closing, and she heard the other doors in the cottage shaking in their frames. “Well, look it —” Big Tom shouted from outside a moment later. His voice was big, full of tobacco, turf smoke, and crushed seashells whipped 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 when she heard him and rushed out of the house to catch Johanna, who’d taken off in a run across the yard to the ﬁeld, where a woman’s body lay in the grass.
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“It’s the tinker from yesterday,” Johanna shouted as Lily hooked her around the waist and pulled her back toward the house. “Greta, remember your tinker from yesterday?” Johanna kicked as she was pulled. She put both heels into the dirt and drew tracks. Greta stood framed in the open cottage door, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan over her hands. It was the kind of day that wouldn’t get any brighter, gray upon gray in every direction. She could feel the dampness on her skin, weighing down her clothes and making her shiver. She put her knuckle in her mouth and began to suck. “Greta?” Lily said. “Come in now, will you? Like a good girl? Like two good girls, you’ll both wait by the ﬁre.” Lily blessed herself. “Lord to mercy on the poor woman.” “It’s an awful day to be dead in a ﬁeld, isn’t it, Mammy?” Johanna said, her breath ragged, the heat of her body coming through her sweater, cutting through the cold and the damp so that Greta could feel it as her sister brushed past, ﬂicking her hair this way and that as she looked back and forth between her mother and the ﬁeld, where Big Tom had gone down on one knee to lift the woman into his arms. “I’d say so, love,” Lily sighed. “Greta, take them ﬁngers out of your mouth.” Ballyroan sat at the very western edge of Ireland. Once, when the book man came to the Cahills’ door selling volumes on all subjects, he’d taken Greta on his knee and told her to ﬁnd her village on the map he unfolded and unfolded until it was the width of their kitchen table. When she couldn’t do that, he told her to ﬁnd Connemara. When she couldn’t do that either, he used his ﬁnger to ﬁnd Galway for her and covered the whole west of Ireland in the process. She was surprised to learn that at the end of all that ocean that began at the end of their lane was a piece of land a hundred times the size of Ireland, and that someone over there might be standing at the end of her own lane and looking back toward her. At the start of the Second World War, the village of Ballyroan consisted of seven families, which came to just over ﬁfty people spread over one square mile. Conch, the closest town, was four miles inland and
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not a single person lived on the bogland or in the ﬁelds that stretched between Conch and Ballyroan, leaving those seven families alone, except when the children went to school or the people from town rode their bicycles out to swim in the sea or for some other equally isolated purpose. Big Tom often said that living in Ballyroan was like living on an island, except better. In every direction was water, but unlike the islands that sat out in the ocean like the backs of whales, Ballyroan had a freshwater river running through it. Not a stream, mind you, but a river. Fast, deep, full to the brim with ﬁsh if you knew the right places to look. It was because of the river that the Cahills never had to leave. Not when the Normans came, not when Grainne O’Malley ruled the clans and the seas, not even during the potato blight when the people either ﬂed or turned into shadows. “Because of this,” Big Tom always said at the end of this familiar speech, and held up his ﬁshing net. “Put that away, you fool,” Lily said when she saw him at it. Sometimes she would grab it out of his hands, gather it up in her arms until it was as small as she could make it, and carry it out of the kitchen to a hiding place only she and Big Tom knew. But by 1956, despite centuries of gathering seaweed from the high sea ledges, drying it, giving it to the children to chew or keep for the ﬂower beds, despite generation after generation of the same families driving cattle, footing turf, churning butter, bleeding the fall pig from the ceiling rafter of a dark back room before covering him with salt the size of hailstones and closing him up in his barrel, despite all the narrow headstones sticking out of the ﬁelds like milk teeth, ﬁve of the seven houses in Ballyroan were abandoned, their windows boarded, their inhabitants gone to England or Australia or Canada or America. Every one of these families said they were certain they’d come back one day, once they had their legs under them, once they’d put aside a little money to bring back home and start again, and when that day came, could they please write the Cahills to take the boards off the windows, light the ﬁre in the kitchen, let the air and sunshine in. Greta assumed that these families did not have a net like her father did, or they wouldn’t have had to leave. According to the man on the
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wireless radio, all of Ireland was leaving for England and America, all except the very young and the very old. It seemed a simple thing, a net. Such an ordinary piece of daily life — like a bucket or a spade — and Greta couldn’t see why people wouldn’t just go out and get one. In the only other house left in Ballyroan lived Mr. Grady. Mr. Grady’s house stood exactly one mile north of the Cahills, and considered together the two houses were like signposts marking where one entered and exited Ballyroan. Big Tom said that no one ever wrote to Mr. Grady, and when Greta asked why, Big Tom said it was because Mr. Grady was a miserable son of a bitch. Lily didn’t like Mr. Grady spoken ill of in the Cahill house. She said it would bring bad luck. Sometimes she included Mr. Grady in the bedtime prayers she said with the girls, and when Big Tom said she should pray for the net and the salmon as long as she was praying for Mr. Grady, she said that would bring bad luck too. If there were still seven families living in Ballyroan in 1956, the travellers might have decided to keep going to a roadside farther away. They came to Conch at roughly the same time every year, after the Ballinasloe Horse Fair in October, and stayed until the middle of December. Greta and Johanna had seen them there when they went to town for Mass or errands, which they weren’t allowed to do alone if the tinkers had set up camp. They had passed the brightly colored barrel-top wagons, their hands clenched ﬁrmly in Lily’s ﬁsts. But by 1956 the travellers had worn out their welcome in Conch. They were run from town, run from the outskirts of town, run up the western road toward the coast, where the townspeople didn’t have to pass their damp clothes drying in the bushes, their collection of tinker tools scattered in the grass, their gypsy stews cooked in open view, their made-up language no one could understand. Ballyroan was a compromise that had been reached after name-calling, ﬁst ﬁghting, denial of entrance to pubs and shops, spitting on ancestral gravesites. The travellers were run all the way to the ocean, where that October they lined up their wagons, set up their tents, built their fortresses of plywood, cardboard, scrap metal, and oilcloth, and lit their ﬁres on that particular high sea ledge for the very ﬁrst time. It was an easy walk
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from there to Conch, where they could spend the days going door to door begging or offering their services or stealing, depending on who was describing it. The morning before the travelling woman landed in the Cahills’ ﬁeld, she’d come to their door and knocked. “God bless all here,” she’d said when Greta answered. Big Tom said that tinkers were without religion. They only pretended when they came to Catholic homes. They had rosaries in their pockets and the string of the scapular peeking out above their collars just like country people, but it was all a trick where a tinker was concerned. Lily said they were born into their lives the same as anyone, and if Big Tom had been born in a tent by the side of the road he wouldn’t know any different either. “I’d know enough, no matter where I was born, not to go around begging instead of going out and doing. They’ll pull the hay from our haycocks to make their beds, and they’ll turn their animals into our ﬁelds at night.” “And what harm?” “And then after that the whole lot of them will come pleading at the door for the clothes off our backs. What harm? And them with more money than any of us with their goats and donkeys and ponies.” “I’ve come across a few good ones, is all I’m saying. There’s bad ones and good ones just like country people. You think you’re perfect, Tom Cahill? Think of what we sell from this house. That’s right. Now think of people who might say we’re no better than the tinkers.” Greta had opened the door for the woman, and though she shouldn’t have been surprised — Lily had said they’d start at the two Ballyroan houses before they headed into town — she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do. Lily was in the kitchen with her bucket of heads and tails, her ﬁngers sticky from pressing the salmons’ bellies and sweeping aside with her cupped hand all that oozed out, when she saw the woman walking down the coast road toward their cottage. She had immediately started cleaning up and shouted to Greta to open all the windows in the cottage as high as they would go. “God bless.” Greta echoed the woman’s greeting, and opened the door wider.
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A conversation with Mary Beth Keane
How autobiographical is THE WALKING PEOPLE? THE WALKING PEOPLE is not autobiographical, but it was inspired by my parents and the community I grew up in. My parents emigrated from the west of Ireland around the same time Greta and Michael did, as did many of my aunts and uncles. Whenever we went back “home” to visit it always amazed me that they somehow managed move from one world to another. My father’s place is more remote – they didn’t get electricity until the 1950s-1960s and many people there still speak Irish (my father also speaks Irish) – and so even more difficult to see how America became the logical next step for so many people who came from there. Long before I began writing the novel I had been thinking about what it takes to get from A to B, to go from such a beautiful but lonely place, and end up in a suburb of New York City. Also, my father was a sandhog for thirty-one years, so his real life occupation inspired Michael’s. Michael is more torn about his work. That feeling he expresses of always being on the verge of leaving is entirely Michael’s. My father liked his job and all the men he worked with. I don’t think he had the same struggles Michael does. I’m sure most people are unaware that the real-life “sandhogs” have been toiling for years, hundreds of feet below the streets of Manhattan, excavating bedrock and tunneling the largest capital project in New York City’s history, the 60-mile-long City Water Tunnel #3. This channel will secure the city’s water supply, which is currently dependent on the two existing, outdated tunnels. Other than your memories of your father’s work, what sort of research did you do into the lives of these men? I had a very good sense of what a sandhog’s life is like when he’s not in the tunnel, but to truly understand what it might have been like for Michael to descend down that shaft each day I felt I had to go down there myself. I asked my father whether this would be possible and he agreed to go with me to the site one afternoon in late August 2006 to ask the foreman if he could bring me
down. By this time he’d been retired for about five years, but there were plenty of men there he knew. I was pessimistic about my chances because I thought there would be a lot of red tape, but we got lucky. We waited until the shift was on break so the machinery wouldn’t be running down when we got down there, and also so we could hear ourselves when I asked questions. They gave me a hardhat and they laughed at me when I didn’t know how to tighten it. Once we got down into the tunnel they were great about showing me what the different machines did, where they took breaks, how they communicated with the top, etc. The only thing I didn’t get to see was the mole – the giant tunnel boring machine – because it was at the end of the tunnel. It features in the novel so I just read as much as I could about it, and then tried my best to reinvent it. Overall, it was a very moving experience. I knew my father used to pray one decade of the rosary before his shift to ask God to protect him and protect the men he works with. Going down that day was the first time I came close to understanding what it must have been like to have a job where he’d have to worry about his life in this way every day for 31 years. One of the main characters in THE WALKING PEOPLE begins life as a traveller. Who are the travellers and why did you choose to make Michael a traveller? “Traveller” is the p.c. term for “tinker,” and the vast majority of Irish I know still use the term “tinker,” perhaps without realizing it’s derogatory. I think I’ve been interested in travellers since the first time I noticed a collection of people camping beside the road in Galway. I asked my parents who they were and why they were sleeping outside and the answer was simply that that’s what travellers did. I’d also heard stories growing up about times when a traveller might knock on a bad night and ask to sleep on the floor of the back room or the shed for a few hours. They roamed and slept wherever they found a good spot to lay their heads. As I got older and read more about this group they became even more interesting to me – primarily because I discovered that their lifestyle had nothing to do with money – or lack of – but with choice. Travellers were no worse off than settled Irish, especially in the 1960s. Within Ireland, they are treated as racially and ethnically different from settled Irish, but as far as I know there is no evidence to support this. Sometimes they are referred to as “gypsies” but most academics who’ve studied travellers as an ethnic group have concluded that they are entirely Irish in ethnicity, and not related to the Roma gypsies of continental Europe. There are, of course, some who disagree. Travellers still battle a lot of racism within Ireland, racism that doesn’t disappear once a traveller settles. A tinker is a tinker whether or not he lives in a lovely house or on the side of the road. This is something Michael’s father tries to explain to him when Michael confesses that he’d like to settle. I knew Michael was a traveller from the moment he walked on the page, but instead of thinking of him as becoming a settled person, I began thinking of the rest of characters as travellers as well – in the sense that no one ever feels quite settled no matter how many years they stay in one place. What do you think younger Irish Americans like yourself – men and women whose parents may have emigrated to America, but who themselves were born here, and probably just think of themselves as “Americans” – feel about Ireland? What do you think they would feel about THE WALKING PEOPLE?
I think most first-generation Irish Americans feel, as I do, like they have a foot in both worlds. In Ireland, we are 100% American. They can spot us a mile away. But in America it’s clear that we’re still so Irish. This didn’t become clear to me until I got to college and had exposure to a wider variety of people. I don’t think I’d ever known anyone whose ancestors had been here since the 19th century until I got to Barnard. I realized then that the customs and cultural mores we had at home were so very Irish. I think this makes for a complicated relationship with Ireland for people like me. It’s referred to constantly – what things are like there, the way things are done there – and to further complicate things it’s always referred to as “home.” It’s impossible not to feel a bond with Ireland as a homeland, but at the same time I don’t know Ireland very well at all. I’ve visited a number of times, and I take any chance I have of going back, but sometimes when I’m there in person it becomes hard to reconcile what’s essentially a foreign land with the familiar place I grew up hearing about, and that we recreated in our home in New York. To add yet another layer, the Ireland that my parents left in the 1960s doesn’t exist today, and so as Ireland moved on, changed, modernized, we were still getting the 1960s version. I hope Irish-Americans will be able to relate to THE WALKING PEOPLE, and that they’ll be able to see some of their own story in Greta and Michael’s, and those in the next generation. I’m sure Greta and Michael’s children think of themselves as the beginning of something – the first generation in a new life, a new place – but if you’re first generation that means you are also an epilogue to someone else’s story.
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