This is a story that dates back to 1847, but for me it begins in 1985. That was the year I graduated high school, and the summer I spent in the countryside outside of Dublin. I was the youngest in a group of two dozen volunteers from Europe and America, part of a work camp building a playground out of dirt, old tires and railroad ties, for a settlement of Travelers. The Travelers were a window back in time, and theirs was a way of life on the brink of extinction. Akin to the gypsies of Ireland, they were increasingly being forced out of their nomadic lifestyle, and onto government settlements.
That particular settlement consisted of a collection of four-room, cinder-block houses, hastily built in the shadows of the thirty-foot wall of a maximum security prison. They were oppressively poor by my middle-class American standards. Their children wore clothes and shoes that were often far too big or small for them, or were practically torn to shreds. They played on a great pile of refuse from the prison, a few old stoves and refrigerators set atop a small mountain of discarded wooden pallets, nails exposed everywhere. And to line them up from youngest to oldest, was to see the progressive levels of hardness, distance from affection, and absence of hope, weaving themselves into the fabric of their hearts.
But there were exceptions: a few children who were quicker to laugh than their companions, an adult or two who smiled more readily than the others, or, most particularly, the old man who played the fiddle at Sunday Mass and never failed to thank us for the playground we were building right there beside the prison walls. He teared up on the day it was finished, and then even more on the day we left. And I wondered how that old man had made it so far in his life without the calloused heart so many around him had at a fraction of his age.
More than twenty years later, in the fading memories of that far away summer, Ethan McOwen was born.
Ethan would face some of the worst episodes of the Irish experience: The Hunger of the Great Famine, emigration to America on the Coffin Ships, the slums of New York, and service in the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. But beyond deprivation and war, Ethan would face the even greater foes of violence, bigotry, corruption and bitterness, which generally accompany such hardship.
As a love interest for Ethan, I imagined Marcella, born to a wealthy society family in Spain that came to America after her father’s scandalous affair. She would be oppressed in quite different ways, facing the restrictions placed upon women but unwilling to behave the way her family, and society demanded of her. To understand her frustration with the restrictions placed upon her, I had my mother’s story to consider. A century after Marcella’s struggle, the restrictions of being a woman were still there. My mother, the eldest of six children and offered a scholarship to attend college, was told by her mother that they could not afford it. They had only planned on sending her two younger brothers to college.
Then there were Micah and Mary, two slaves who began as minor characters and soon demanded that more and more of their story be told. They were born out of my years as a student and teacher in Washington, D.C., and in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where I learned so much more about the African-American experience in this country. I told my students that they could be anything they wanted to be, if they worked hard enough, but their history books and the world around them told them a very different story. In writing Micah and Mary, I became determined to create characters that would be set apart from the common depiction of slaves in literature and film. They would be cut from the same mold of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman: self-made, highly intelligent, and resolute. They would not be rescued by kindly white folks the way so many African American characters are in stories told by white writers. They would take their freedom, since it was no man’s to ever “give” in the first place.
As I researched and wrote these stories, I became increasingly aware of the common threads that ran through all such experiences. What anger, what frustration, what bitterness and hatred must accompany such limitations? But I did not grow up with parents who saw the world in such a manner. My mother was forty-seven when she finally graduated college, alongside my father, who was fifty, and had served for twenty-one years on the FDNY. It was then that they began their second careers, as teachers, becoming a bold and lasting example of the possible.
The characters of this story would embody such resilience, neither surrendering to the limits of expectations, or becoming embittered by hardship. They would be, like that old man at the Traveler settlement playing his hopeful fiddle and celebrating the completion of an austere playground alongside prison walls, symbols of unyielding character and uncommon strength. They’d be the sort who travel, with hearts unconquered, towards the home they have so long sought, and even more deserved.