When I was looking for novels to review around St. Patrick’s Day, Peter Troy’s May the Road Rise Up to Meet You sounded like just the thing. What could be more Irish than a novel named for an Irish Blessing? As it turns out it is very Irish but it’s a lot more than that. I love how it interweaves the struggles of three marginalized immigrant populations together, some free and some not, as seen through the eyes of four very different people in the days before, during, and after the Civil War.
“May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall softly on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”
The four voices belong to Ethan McOwen, Marcella, Micah, and Mary. At first I thought there must be a mistake because these four people are so dissimilar on the surface. And then it all began to make sense and I decided the author knew exactly what he was doing in writing this wonderful novel.
Because May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is so complex and their lives are interwoven so masterfully, I can’t write this review the way I normally do. Instead I’m going to give you a brief paragraph and quote about each of the four narrators to give you a sense of who they are.
When the potatoes begin to rot in the ground, and The Hunger came, Ethan’s Da and older brother take a boat to America and promise to send for the rest of the family as soon as possible. Ethan’s older sister Aislinn, who has instilled in him a love of classic literature, catches a sickness and dies before the family can leave Ireland. His Mam and Aunt Em are staying in England to work in the factories for now so Ethan has to travel by boat alone to New York. His claustrophobia means he often reads on deck. While there he befriends Suah, a Caribbean ex-slave, who takes care of him and ensures he doesn’t perish like so many when a deadly sickness spreads throughout the passenger hold.
“He’d [Ethan] rushed home that day with nothing’ more than a quick wave to Mr. Hanratty, carryin’ the usual pocketful of oats and even more of a bounty in his other pocket, four pieces of jerky that Mr. Broderick’d given him for stayin’ late…It made Ethan feel even guiltier than usual about taking the pocketful of oats, even though Aunt Em always said it wasn’t really stealin’, just doin’ the Lahrds work for Him, feedin’ the poor and such, like th’ loaves an’ fishes in th’ Bible.”
Marcella leads a privileged life in Manhattan society but she feels stifled by her father and brothers. She has a brain that isn’t being used, and she’s determined to become her own person. She has opinions and she won’t be stifled for long. Even though she’s living in a land of freedom, they feel they can dictate every move she makes just as they did in Spain. Marcella is encouraged to do charitable work, however, and that’s how she escapes. Little does her family know that she’s found a group of women abolitionists working to free slaves through the Underground Railroad, among other things her father wouldn’t approve of.
“For two hours that evening, she’s [Marcella] sat in one of the parlor room armchairs beside the poker table, pretending to read while she watched her brothers stumble through playing with as much subtlety as they employed in their daily lives, sons of their father that they were…they’d lost five hundred dollars between them…A half hour later she managed to charm her way into the game, declaring to the young gentlemen, “Daddy gave me two hundred dollars for new dresses, but I already have more dresses than I could possibly ever wear as it is, and – …well – I’m just so terribly bored.’”
Micah lives on a Lowcountry plantation with his family. His Daddy has a deal with Massa Leroux, to plant and harvest a field of indigo, and with the money earned buy Micah’s freedom when he comes of age. It’s to be Micah’s inheritance. The last of the money will be earned as soon as the field is harvested this year. Then Massa dies suddenly and his wife knows nothing of the agreement. She has no interest in owning the plantation, so she puts it and all its property up for auction. Daddy fetches a princely sum because of his unusual skills but he’s headed for Mississippi. Micah fetches a large sum for someone unproven in the field; however, Mr. Dunmore of Charlottesville, Virginia, knows his father taught him well and intends Micah to be his carpenter’s apprentice, not a field hand.
“And there he was with Daddy, standing over that field, getting’ ready to harvest it. That’s when Daddy told Micah how there wasn’t gonna be a indigo harvest that year. How he talked with the Misses, best as he could. How she didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ when it come to the agreement he made with the Massa the day Micah was born. How there wasn’t gonna be no inheritance, least not like they’d figured.”
Mary escapes from a North Carolina plantation with Gertie, an elderly slave woman who taught her to embroider. Gertie knows the path to freedom but what neither of them count on is that her health is so bad that she can’t travel fast enough to escape the hounds. When they’re captured, Gertie has a lethal heart attack and Mary is left alone. She’s taken to Charleston, where she’s put on the auction block. A child and her parents, the Kittredges of Richmond, Virginia, see Mary and decide to buy her as the child’s companion.
“Then she [Gertie] stops, an you look over sideways seein her tyin off anotha thread.
‘You can’t tell nothing ‘bout whachu seein when you layin over there,’ she says. ‘Can’t tell nothing ‘bout nothing in dis worl’ when all you seein is th’ knots an tangles an ever’thin’ goin ever which way, lookin’ like a buncha mess. How you gonna understan’ when you layin’ there seein just th’ messa it all, when th’ mess only one parta it, no matta how it seem sometime? Cain’t see how all dese little bitsa thread be connected together. Jus’ like all th’ bitsa yo’ life gonna be, cause you ain’t lookin at it the way it meant t’be seen.’”
These four people’s lives lead to upheaval, heartbreak, and ultimately to survival, romance and redemption – and all of it unfolds during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is written so beautifully that you can see it coming to life as you read. It almost felt like I was watching a movie unfold as I read. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel completely because the horrors of famine, war and slavery are not things anyone could enjoy. What did make it joyful were these four narrators, who I came to care so deeply about. This is a very moving novel, which I hope you’ll read. I think you’ll be happy you did.
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was released on February 28, 2012, so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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