Ms. Neale hit the proverbial nail on the head with this story, especially for a person like me whose two favorite things are Ireland and New York City. In fact, because of the subject matter, I was already hooked before the opening lines even appeared. And, boy, what opening lines they are…
We begin in the 1850’s, in Five Points, New York. The McCabe’s are an Irish family who made the horrific trip across the Atlantic in order to escape the Famine and call a free America their home. They are extremely pleased with their third floor apartment in a lopsided gray tenement building. Although they’re still getting used to their creaky wood floors, instead of toiling on the decaying fields and smelling the rot that surrounded them back in Ireland – they are also sincerely missing the beautiful bouquets of heather that grew wild in the green grass back home. The McCabe’s are a family who support each other with everything they have, and love and support their daughter Norah with all their hearts. Mam and Da want much better for their wonderful child than they had growing up, and they’ll work their fingers to the bone to make that happen. Mam does sewing and cleaning for the wealthy New York aristocrats, while Da works in various jobs, as well as being a fantastic fiddler that the local saloons compete against in order to get him on their stage.
Norah is what you would call an independent young woman. She absolutely refuses to think of herself as Irish-American. More than life, she wants to drop the brogue, and become a person who’ll be accepted by the elite social classes. Norah knows that the elegant women who meander through the streets of New York look at the Irish as if they’re simply beggars, and she will definitely do anything she can to NOT be classified in that repugnant category. In fact, Norah is the proprietor of her very own dress shop called Bee in your Bonnet – a used clothing store that she manages; her best friend, Mary, also works at the shop. Poor Mary is a great worker, but she’s had a hard life, thus far; she still lives in a home for urchins where she grew up, but she now earns her keep, dresses in flamboyant, costly clothing, and walks beside Norah with her head up high – right next to the rich “Astor’s” of the world.
Through extremely strange circumstances, Norah and Mary end up in front of a New York Commissioner, being questioned about their involvement in a murder. And, because of this extremely odd turn of events, this unforgettable novel opens up and introduces a variety of characters that range from a police officer named Leary (who dropped the O’ in his name because even HE knows the prejudice that exists against the Irish); a newspaper man who runs The Irish American, which is dedicated to righting wrongs and exposing the truth; and, a local priest who’s up against the white councilmen of Tammany Hall who are determined to keep prejudice and slavery alive and well.
Norah lands a job as a reporter for The Irish American, and also meets a man named Murray. This man is not only going to change her future, but he’s also going to open up a world to Norah that will allow her to experience everything from warring newspaper men, to the British role in Ireland, to a Rebellion that must be fought in order to truly save lives and change the future. When Murray, Norah, a priest, a madam, and a police officer all come together in the same place at the same time, the threads of this story combine so well and so tightly that the novel seems to form a Celtic knot.
The morals of this tale are extremely poignant. When this author talks about truth, her words make your head spin; when she speaks about Norah’s vanity and how much she wishes to discard her “true” self, you practically weep. Ms. Neale makes it very clear that if you pretend to be someone else, you’re in danger of losing the colorful fibers that actually make up your soul. In addition, the lines that deal with a family’s undying love for each other, will make you want to find your parents and give them a great big hug. And, finally, when the author expresses how deeply and profoundly the Irish feel about their ancestry, the words will stick in the reader’s mind forever. For me, those words were “…the taproot of their mother country grew like fingernails of the dead and clawed at them, forever pleading for them to return home.” There’s nothing to say about a line like that except…outstanding.
Quill says: This is not a tame, peaceful read. Although there are certainly beautiful scenes of corseted females in their finery traversing the streets of New York City, those same streets are also filled with vicious, violent people desperately trying to feed their families. Norah’s life is upsetting in many ways – and the twists and turns that happen to her do, indeed, include angry people who are truly out for themselves. However, this story is filled with so much intrigue, mystery, and beauty, that you’ll cling to every word while watching Norah grow into a strong, courageous, and brilliant woman, who ends up truly proud of her Irish blood.