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.