18 March 2012


     Sometimes I turn to fiction to experience the emotional impact of family history, both mine and others'. By its very nature, a fiction novel is, well, fiction. But a skilled and knowledgeable author can spin a good yarn while conveying to us the thoughts and cultures and times of our ancestors. So it is with three books I read recently.
      I just finished reading Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart (Toronto: McClelland  Stewart). In this tale of a contemporary events in the lives of an extended family living on the shores of Lake Erie, Erquhart explores how the stories of the family's ancestors affected the succeeding generations. One of the characters, the narrator's uncle, is the family historian who is constantly telling the children the stories of the "greats greats" and the "great great greats" of their Irish Butlers. The "bifurcated" Butler family divided back in Ireland into farmers and lighthouse keepers, then continued dividing geographically in the US and Canada. The stories are interwoven, until the past culminates in present day tragedies and healing.
     While not dealing as directly with genealogy, two other fairly recent novels have dealt with the emotional and cultural issues that Irish immigrants faced while creating a new life in America after fleeing from political strife in the years surrounding Ireland's independence. In On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry, an immigrant woman is forced to create a succession of new identities because of her past in Ireland. But, no matter how hard she attempts to cover her tracks, her past continues to haunt, and imperil, her.
     Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin also tells the tale of a female Irish immigrant, but this story is set in the 1950's. The main character is a single female who grapples with life in multicultural Brooklyn. Toibin expertly explores the emotional tug of war between the homeland and the new land. The character's visit back to her family in Ireland is especially poignant.
     How did our ancestors deal with homesickness? How did they deal with the new culture and way of life they faced after leaving Ireland? After reading these three novels, I can more readily imagine the range of emotional responses my own ancestors might have had to the travails of emigrating and establishing a new life so very far from home.