Tag Archives: Ireland

Celebrating the Solstice

My dear friend “D” entertains annually on the Winter solstice. The party includes many people who don’t know one another, because they come from different parts of D’s life. My original connection was the playgroup that supported D and I though our children’s preschool years. Those kids are over age 30 now, and most of the playgroup mothers are now grandparents.

Not satisfied with food and drink and general conversation (all wonderful!), D always organizes some kind of “sharing”. This year, her topic was simply inspired. IMMIGRATION has been all over the news and dominates many conversations.

We were offered a chance to discuss our family histories, and share about holiday customs that came from our forebears! Seriously, we could have talked all night. There were 16 of us. Do the math. Thirty two parents, sixty four grandparents, and on it goes! Each life is a story.

What did I learn? The most common country of origin for South Jersey families is Italy! (Had you asked me, I might have suggested Germany, but that’s just my neighborhood.) Those with Italian roots reported large families and many variations on the “Feast of Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve.

Next most common was the Irish/German/Miscellaneous cohort. I belong there – German mother, Irish father, maybe some English blood.

Many people like me report data gaps. Family members were adopted (often informally), and their backgrounds remain unknown. Going back only four generations, my family tree includes two adoptions.

Two people reported Native American ancestry. Each could name a tribe, but neither holds tribal membership. Only two in our group reported on ancestors from before 1776, and no one reported membership in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).

Some of us discussed genealogy and/or genetic testing. One woman hired a specialized tour guide to help her find family records along the Rhine in Germany! Several people had done or planned to use commercially available genetic testing.

I spoke early in the discussion, and managed to be brief, but things continued to occur to me. Did anyone else know how to make the German treat called “elephant ears”? Did anyone speak a language that was NOT lost during immigration? Each of my grandmothers said she had forgotten her first language, but my German grandmother remembered a little vocabulary and snatches of song. My mother studied German in high school, and I learned it in college. Gaelic, regrettably, has been lost to us.

The Christmas season is a wonderful time for these types of reflection! Thanks, D, for a great evening.

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“Uniting Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

This newly released novel has a great plot! It caught my attention and I powered right through it. With historical fiction, it’s hard to know what you are getting. I would describe this book as 60% fiction and 35% historical. The odd 5%? Parts read more like a mystery than anything else. Who’s the bad guy??

The historical setting is the reunification of England and Ireland in 1801, but most of this book is about family and romance. The heroine, Marion Coxe, is trying to protect her four year old twin nephews from politically motivated abduction. She has two love interests – one from the past and one new to her life. The resolution of this shapes the outcome of the book.

The only time I felt the 21st century intrude was on the issue of social class. Some of the servants were too “good” and too accomplished, causing the aristocrats to question their own prejudices. It could happen, I suppose…

This book is described as the first in a series. The author certainly has strong characters and situations to build on, and I look forward to further adventures.

“The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” by Oscar Hijuelos

This book is the saga of a family, starting in the late 1800s in Ireland but taking place mostly in the United States. Nelson O’Brien left Ireland in 1896 and traveled to Cuba as a photographer in 1898 during the Spanish American War. In Cuba, he fell in love with and married Mariela Montez. They settled in Pennsylvania and raised a family of fourteen daughters and one son. O’Brien was a successful entrepreneur, keeping his family “comfortable” or at least approximately in the middle class.

The love between Nelson and Mariela never wavers. Their household is described as busy, noisy, happy and overwhelmingly female.

The main theme of this book is gender, or perhaps the female gender. O’Brien and his son live in a sea of femininity. Each seems alternately happy and baffled. The Montez O’Brien sisters follow many different paths – happy marriage, unhappy marriage, no marriage, teaching, performing, etc. The lone son worked as an actor and later became a photographer like his father. The son “discards” his Cuban heritage by acting under an anglicized stage name.

On the issue of gender, the Montez O’Brien family is tilted sharply towards the female, but other polarities are more even.

In appearance, some of the sisters are Irish, while others strongly resemble their Cuban mother. America is those years was prejudiced against both groups, but dark skin and curly hair were more unfavorably regarded.

The family was also “split” by language. Mariela never became comfortable speaking English, and mostly retreated to dignified silence outside the family. The older sisters were fluently bilingual, but the younger ones, raised more by their big sisters than their mother, never really learned Spanish, and hence were handicapped in understanding their mother and her family. Their efforts to learn Spanish later in life never seemed successful. One sister went to live in Cuba, but none lived in Ireland and few visited there.

This book is full of vivid, sensual images and emotions. The Pennsylvania house, in particular, is described so clearly I felt like I was living there.

Read this book if you like romantic fiction or family histories, or are interested in immigration and the sociology of America from 1900 to about 1960.

“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?