cover image THE KEENERS


Maura D. Shaw, . . Medallion, $24.95 (278pp) ISBN 978-1-932815-15-3

Conveying the misery that plagued Ireland during the mid–19th-century potato famine as well as the hope and opportunity that many Irish immigrants found upon docking in America, Shaw's debut treads familiar ground but offers a simple, inspiring portrait of one woman's perseverance. At the novel's outset, young Margaret Meehan and her best friend, Kitty, attend a lively May Day celebration. But the festivities come to a halt when Edward Speke, an unbelievably evil English land agent, shoots a 13-year-old boy who's hunting rabbits for food. From here, the book becomes a relentless catalogue of horrors, as Margaret, her family and her neighbors grow poorer, hungrier and more desperate, and Speke commits crime after crime against them. Relief comes only after Margaret and her beau, Tom Riordan, head to America and settle—with surprising ease—into life as factory workers in Troy, N.Y. The one connection Margaret retains to her homeland and to the old Irish traditions she learned from Nuala Lynch, a keener (i.e., professional mourner), is a rock shaped like an ancient fire goddess, which she inevitably passes on at the story's end. Though the novel can be overwrought (its repetitive scenes of starvation and death are far from subtle), most readers will come away having learned a little something about Irish traditions and the ways in which Irish immigrants have shaped the country. (Mar.)