It wasn’t until I was well into the second of two books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks that the timeliness of these very different works dawned on me. Nothing in either the biography or novel – both released in 2016 – would have suggested that they were important books for our time, much less that there would be common threads.
And as a bonus, both are terrific reads.
Timothy Egan has produced a page-turning biography that captures the incredible saga of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar), one of the most famous Irish Americans of all time. Egan – one of my favorite writers (see the “Writers I Enjoy” list on the side of my blog page) – has previously written highly readable and well-researched histories on the Dust Bowl (The Worst Hard Time) and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service (The Big Burn). In The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, Egan bring Francis Meagher’s time and story to life.
Meagher was born to comfort in Ireland, but left that life to lead a failed uprising against the British during the Great Hunger of the 1840s. In this part of the book, Egan’s description of the horrors of the potato famine and the English starvation of the Irish is visceral and hard-to-forget. For his part in the Young Ireland uprising, Meagher is “transported” to a Tasmanian exile on the other side of the world, yet escapes and comes to America where he is instantly hailed as the most famous Irish American in the land.
The 1850s in America have eerie parallels to today, with sectional divisions, strong partisan divides, and politicians who ignore the fundamental issues facing the country. In the decades before the Civil War, the Know-Nothing Party – one of the predecessors to Trump’s Republican Party today – brought a nasty, nativist strain to politics that blamed immigrants – and especially Irish immigrants – for all the nation’s ills. Irish-Americans were attacked in their homes, legislation blocked their arrival, and bigotry was both accepted and prevalent throughout the land.
Francis Meagher strode onto the stage and – through the power of his story and oratory – because a leader of Irish Americans in New York. When the South (including a large number of Irish immigrants) fired on Ft. Sumter, Meagher helped recruit Irish Americans to join the Union cause. In short order General Meagher was the head of the Irish Brigade, which was asked again and again to go into the worst situations in battles and save the day after the blunders of the Union’s incompetent generals. The worst example was the charge they were forced to endure up Mayre’s Heights into the teeth of the Confederate Army at Fredericksburg. The great Irish musician John Doyle captured that story in his terrific tune Clear the Way (with the music beginning after a short history lesson at about 2:48 in this video).
Disillusioned with the war, Meagher moves to Montana to become the territorial governor. Hoping to finally make his fortune and create a New Ireland in the frontier, Meagher instead finds himself fighting injustice in this lawless territory. The story ends with a mysterious death at age forty-three. Egan provides compelling new information to perhaps help put a coda on this amazing life.
The Immortal Irishman is a first-rate work. The relevance is that he reminds us that the nativist strain we face today has a long and sad history in the U.S.
I expected to enjoy Timothy Egan’s work. I had no idea what to expect when I bought a young writer’s first novel on a whim – literally because a woman was standing at the book table at the Politics and Prose members sale and said, “This is a great read.” We talked about other things she liked and her tastes seem to align with mine…so I took a flyer.
Am I glad I did.
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a very impressive debut novel. The story of two half sisters born in eighteenth century Ghana, and the families their different paths produced, is epic and emotional. Gyasi skips back and forth between the family that stays in Ghana and the other one – unbeknownst to the first – who is sold off into slavery in the U.S. She follows each, generation after generation, through wars in Africa and slavery and the Great Migration in the U.S.
The pace is brisk and there are multiple story lines to maintain. The reader is helped along by the family tree in the front of the book, and somewhere along the way I found myself drawn into the rhythm of the story being told on both sides of the Atlantic. Some reviewers have suggested that the African chapters are the stronger of the two strains of storytelling, but I found that to be a minor quibble. Certainly the chapters about the family members sold into slavery are more familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less compelling.
Homegoing is yet another epic reminder of how a country that proclaims freedom was built on conquest and slavery. So many times I came up from an extended period of reading this fascinating work, only to be faced with what seems like never-ending examples of bigotry and conquest coming from the evening news.
Two very different books. Two excellent writers. Two works that help us see that the national story is truly much more complex, layered, and difficult than we often realize.
More to come…