Saturday, March 01, 2008

Irish Passage: Nory Ryan's Song and Maggie's Door by Patricia Reilly Giff

Newbery Honor author Patricia Reilly Giff (for Lily's Crossing) has turned her considerable skills to her family's historical roots in the Irish Great Famine of 1845-1849.

Before 1845, twelve-year-old Nory Ryan's rural family is large and happy. Although her Mam died when her three-year-old brother Patch is born, her father and grandfather manage to feed Nory and her two sisters, Celia and Maggie, by fishing and cultivating their small plot of potatoes. When her work is done, Nory learns healing arts from family friend Anna and roams the fields with her friend Sean Red Mallon. Times are hard, but Nory takes hope in her sister Maggie's wedding to Francey Mallon and the young couple's plan to go to America and send for her to join them later.

Then one morning, Nory awakes to a strange, unpleasant smell from their little potato field. Soon the blight takes their crop and that of all of Ireland. When Irelands tenant farmers are unable to pay the rent on their small cottages and tiny plots of land, most soon see confiscation of their animals and eviction from the land where their families had lived for centuries.

For a time Nory and her sister help their family survive, gathering edible seaweed and finding birds' eggs on the cliffs above the sea. But as hunger stalks the countryside and their livestock are taken for the rent, the family sees no hope except to walk to Galway and find passage on a ship to Brooklyn, New York, where Maggie and Francey now live. Celia, their grandfather and their father set forth first with tickets sent by Maggie, with little Patch to follow in the care of Sean's mother in Sean Mallon's cart.

The second book, Maggie's Door begins with Nory's leave taking of her home, with the blessing of neighbor Anna and her gift of healing herbs. Anxious to catch up with Sean's cart and her little brother Patch, Nory finds the way to Galway a terrible road, with starving people begging and stealing from each other to stay alive. Nory is robbed of her store of food and injured and hungry, finally finds Patch. The cart is broken, and Sean has gone to try to earn food from a nearby landowner. Sean's heartbroken mother turns back, choosing to die in her deserted cottage, but Nory carries Patch on, telling the hungry little boy of the good times ahead when they arrive at Maggie's door in America.

In Galway, where Sean goes after failing to find his mother and Patch, he has no choice but to sign up as a cook's helper to get to Liverpool and on to America. Nory fails to find him, but does find her Grandda, who has stayed behind to wait for her while Celia and her father go on ahead. Although their tickets are no longer good, Nory, Patch, and Grandda use their last coins to get to Liverpool, where they take passage on the dilapidated Samson, filled with Irish families packed tightly below deck.

The passage of forty days is dreadful, with scant, bug-infested food, much sickness, and fearful storms. Grandda dies from want and heartbreak despite Nory's best efforts, but her care keeps Patch alive, and the hope of someday standing before Maggie's door in Brooklyn keeps her going. When Nory is summoned for her healing skill to help a severely burned cook's helper, she is overjoyed to find that her patient is Sean Mallon, and remembering Anna's teachings, she is able to help him survive until the ship makes port in New York.

Sean, Nory, and Patch do arrive at 416 Smith Street, Maggie's door, where they are met by Nory's father, Celia, and Maggie and Francey with their new baby. Although Nory sees no streets paved with diamonds or gold, she does find a bustling city where work is plentiful and no one is starving. With her family together, Nory's struggles and hope for the future are vindicated.

Despite the suffering in Nory Ryan's story, Patricia Reilly Giff's storytelling weaves a tale of great pain but also of great adventure. Nory and Sean are characters of amazing determination and ingenuity whose struggles to stay alive and make their own futures draw the reader into a narrative hard to put down. These two novels should be read as one: Maggie's Door should be at hand as soon as Nory Ryan's Song is finished. Many Americans are descended from the millions of immigrants who were part of the Irish Diaspora, and for all of us, all immigrants in one way or another, their story is our story.

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  • These books sound wonderful. I am always looking for books in this age range and wonder why I have never come across this author before!

    By Blogger Marbel, at 7:49 AM  

  • Dear Marbel,
    I don't know how you missed Giff! She's written a lot of books, including the beginning chapter fiction "Kids of the Polk Street School" and related series and middle reader novels going back over twenty years now, including two Newbery Honor books, Lily's Crossing and Pictures of Hollis Woods.

    See her website at


    I'm glad you like this pre-St. Patrick's Day post!

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:33 PM  

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