Fields of Home by Marita Conlon-McKenna is the third and final volume of the Children of the Famine trilogy. (I have reviewed the first two books, Under the Hawthorn Tree and Wildflower Girl.)
It has been twelve years since the Famine struck Ireland and the O’Driscoll siblings are now young adults and are still trying to build better lives. Eily and her husband have two children and are living on a farm with her great aunt, Nano. Michael is happily working in the stables in the Great House and is even riding in races. Peggy (I have such a spot for this lovely girl!) is still struggling to find her place and dreams in a land that hasn’t quite embraced her.
Ireland is in turmoil – rents are escalating for tenant farmers like Eily and her neighbours and the threat of eviction is ever looming. We see much of this through the eyes of Mary Brigid, Eily’s daughter – landlords are heartlessly throwing tenants out of the only homes they have ever known and like Mary Brigid, we worry and wonder where they will go and how they will manage. Michael, in training to be a horseman, loves his work, but his happiness is short-lived. He finds himself on his own again when the property where he works is sold following a fire. He has no place to go except back to Eily’s farm. The O’Driscolls must now rely on their ingenuity if they are to survive in post-famine Ireland.
Peggy, meanwhile in Boston, is acutely lonely – she is trapped in drudgery and her two friends are moving on. Kitty, her fellow maid, has moved on to serve in another house and Sarah, her beloved friend is moving West to better her health and prospects. James, Sarah’s brother, proposes to Peggy and asks her to come along. Despite her dire circumstances, Peggy is unwilling to settle and wants a true soul mate.
You will find yourself rooting for these brave siblings. They are a tough lot – the kind who just grit their teeth and roll up their sleeves no matter what life throws at them. They are confronted with heartbreak and struggle at every turn and yet, even when they have barely anything to give, they reach out and help one another. This is what I found most heartwarming about this story – their undeniably strong love and their abundant hope.
This book may be for slightly older readers simply because the characters deal with more adult issues like politics, employment and marriage. My girls and I enjoyed the journey with the O’Driscolls and we formed such an attachment to the characters. This story ends on a beautiful note – there is finally the promise of better times!
Wildflower Girl by Marita Conlon-McKenna is the sequel to Under the Hawthorne Tree. (You can read my review here.) This book sees Eily, Michael and Peggy alive and well six years later in Castletaggart. Aunt Lena is now dead and the girls and Aunt Nano try to eke out a living at the bake shop. However, times are hard – many inhabitants of Castletaggart have either died in the Great Famine or have left.
Aunt Lena’s landlord decides to sell his property and move to Dublin. This essentially means that the family will be all but homeless, and it was indeed a bleak time in their village and Ireland. The landlord offers to pay for the family to go to America and this seems to offer some hope for a new start. However, Nano is too old to travel; Eily accepts a marriage proposal and Michael gets a job in a stable. Young Peggy, all of thirteen, decides to take her chances and migrate for a better life. What else is left for her otherwise?
As the family prepares for the impending separation, the grief is poignantly described. You can’t help but think of the larger picture as well – the mass exodus saw the population of Ireland drop by some twenty-five percent. One million people died of starvation or disease and another million emigrated. I read elsewhere that the famine contributed to the decline in the use of Gaelic as well – West Ireland, where Gaelic was at its strongest, was also the hardest hit in terms of deaths and emigration.
Peggy braves horrifying conditions on the month-long journey across the Atlantic. The poor passengers endure sea-sickness, cabin fever and wretchedly awful meals. Peggy survives this ordeal with the help of a friend, Sarah.
Life isn’t much easier in the promised land – the new immigrants are looked down upon and frequently taken advantage of. Peggy gets a job in a lodging house but is abused by the drunken proprietor. As a maid later in a large house, she toils endlessly and is not even given facilities for a bath. Joy for the homesick Peggy is visiting Sarah on her days off and sitting amongst the wildflowers that remind her of home.
I really enjoyed this second instalment of the Children of the Famine series. My daughters were truly moved by the courage of Peggy who left home for a strange land at such a young age. It was such a different time then… a time when children had to grow up fast and hard. We were hooked and looked forward to final book in the series.
Do check out my review of Fields of Home.
I first discovered this gem of a book by Marita Conlon-McKenna quite by accident and almost gave it a miss – it was such a ragged copy! I got it for a mere 50 rupees in a used bookshop in Islamabad. This award-winning novel deals with the the Great Irish Famine that ravaged Ireland in the 1840s. The story centres around the O’Driscolls, an average Irish family who are tenant farmers, dependent on potatoes as their main source of food. Tragedy strikes in the form of “the Blight” – a disease that destroys the potato crops – and what ensues is extensive starvation.
Eily (who is 12), Michael (10) and Peggy (7) O’Driscoll have coped with heartbreak upon heartbreak. Their parents left to find work, but have gone missing and their baby sister Bridget is dead and buried under the hawthorn tree. (It is said that in Irish mythology, the hawthorn is linked with the otherworld.) All around them, farmers are one by one being evicted by landowners. Surrounded by devastation and the threat of being sent to the workhouse, the children are determined to survive and stay together.
Armed with nothing but courage and love, they embark on a perilous journey across Ireland to find their great-aunts, Nano and Lena, whom they have only heard about in their mother’s stories. The children sleep in the open and forage for food in the wild and in the farms of dead tenants. They are confronted with death at every turn. They see bodies of those who died with no one to mourn or pray over them and they see the living dead – those so traumatised that they are but shells of their former selves.
When the O’Driscoll children arrive in Ballycarbery, they see the ships loaded with food bound for England. It is a painful and bitter pill to swallow – the landlords were making money while their countrymen were falling dead from starvation. Indeed, that is the irony of those horrific years – it was only the potato crop that failed; wheat, oats and meat were in excellent supply but they were shipped out to England. It is said that a million and a half people died during these dark years and another million emigrated.
Read about how Eily, Michael and Peggy push every fibre of their being to stay alive and find a better home. This book is part of the Children of the Famine trilogy. The other books in the series are Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home. This series is very special to me because I have such lovely memories of reading them with my girls many winters ago.
If you are keen on doing a unit study, guides are available at O’Brien Press. I’ve also done a class entitled Ending Hunger at the close of my history of food co-op. If you are interested in my resources, please leave a comment below.