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The Walking People

When two sisters leave Ireland for New York in the 1950s, nothing turns out as they expect.

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This is the era of the immigrant, and if you’re seeking a tale of cultural assimilation, there is no shortage of excellent options. Junot Díaz gives us the jagged edges of the Dominican-American community (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”), Edwidge Danticat writes of the wrenching dislocations of Brooklyn’s Haitians (“Brother, I’m Dying”), Jhumpa Lahiri portrays the suburban discomfort of Indian-Americans (“Unaccustomed Earth”), and Dave Eggers movingly tracks the “Lost Boys” of Sudan (“What Is the What”).

But if, after this multicultural feast, there remains room in your heart for a deliberately paced tale of European immigration, The Walking People, a debut novel by Mary Beth Keane may be your book.

Keane begins her story in the Ireland of 1956 – a land of verdant beauty and almost no opportunity. The Cahill family live in Ballyroan, where the air is whipped with salt, the rivers run silver with fish, and yet no one can make a living. Most of the villagers have already emigrated and so it’s not surprising that Johanna, the Cahills’ feisty elder daughter, wants to join them. But younger sister Greta, a lost, anxious child who spends her life “veering left when everyone else veered right,” seems an unlikely candidate for so large an adventure.

So does Michael Ward. Michael comes from a family of “walking people,” itinerant Irish despised by the rest of their more settled countrymen. Eager to escape the harshness of life on the road, Michael has won a place as the Cahills’ handyman and sees life in the deserted hamlet as the realization of a deep desire.

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