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From beginning to end, a wonderful journey.
The reader will not want this book to end. It is such a marvelous, easy to read story told through Marie’s memories as she looks back over the years recalling the things that were meaningful in her life. It is told in an uncomplicated, simple, straight-forward style in which all life-cycle events, some major and some minor, play a role. As the pages turn, we witness births, deaths, tragedies, joys, marriages, illnesses, milestones and setbacks, dreams and nightmares. Family devotion and loyalty, sibling rivalry and sibling love, parental responsibility and parental abuse, success and failure, hopes and aspirations, anxiety and desperation, all appear on the pages as naturally as if they were happening to us, as well as the characters.
The author has a way with words so that the story lifts off the page and the reader is transported to the time and place in Brooklyn, where Marie was raised in a tight knit Irish immigrant neighborhood. So accurately does she describe the life, in the home and on the street, in the workplace and in the church, in the medical facilities and in the school, that I was reminded of my own years growing up in Brooklyn, watching my brother study for a career while I was expected to be a secretary or a teacher, since not all avenues were open to women then, and I was filled with nostalgia for that simpler time when neighbors actually not only knew each other, but they cared about each other, even as they gossiped and created rumors. They talked to each other almost every day as they lived in communities where neighborliness was the norm.
The warmth of the experience is so real and so accurate that the reader will feel as if they have been set down on Marie’s street, possibly in front of her stoop, or perhaps joining the children as they play in the street, possibly offering sympathy at a wake, showing respect for the deceased, maybe visiting at the hospital, comforting a neighbor, sharing the trials they are experiencing right along with them, possibly witnessing the new bride as she exits her home and enters the waiting limousine, or maybe even throwing rice at the happy couple as they leave the church. The description of the mischievous children, complete with their often obvious cruelty as they learned to navigate the world, is so perfect that I could almost feel their taunts were directed at me. The day to day life with all of its tragedies and joys is described so matter-of-factly, so naturally, that the reader is not just watching, but is participating in all the events, the death of a child, the death of a parent, the mental illness that effects some families, the rumors and gossip that pervade the air when there are secrets.
To be sure, the author is fair, she also describes the decay that crept into many of these neighborhoods, as years passed, the infestation of roaches, the urban blight that took over and destroyed these communities as upward mobility became de rigeur, and neighbors moved on to other boroughs, parts of the Bronx, Queens and Long Island, in search of a better life. There, they also encountered a more solitary, disconnected life, a life in which neighbors no longer fully interacted with each other and no one knocked on the door to visit because that became an intrusion rather than a friendly call.
The Marie who is remembering is now a weaker version of herself, practically blind, elderly and frail, but in her youth, she was once a headstrong, sometimes recalcitrant child, determined to do as she wanted, defiant in her own way, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of stubbornness, but always willful and always strong. Marie and her brother Gabe are opposites. He is obedient, on his way to the seminary to become a Priest, and she is disobedient, defiant, often tells little lies simply because she can. The family is close. The neighborhood homes have the stoops of my childhood, the subways I took to work, the delis I frequented. It was a time when mothers were home cooking, teaching their children the things they needed to learn to face their futures.
McDermott describes the neighborhood oddities, the retarded children that the fit and hearty would avoid looking at, the afflicted and the demented that inhabit all neighborhoods along with the healthy and rational. Nothing is left out and yet nothing is extraneous. The author’s descriptions so clearly illustrate the lifestyle that I could readily picture it, remember it and return to the time in my own memory, reliving with nostalgia, my own childhood, waiting for my dad to come home, sitting down as a family to dinner, my mom washing out my mouth with soap for speaking out of turn, watching my brother study and my sister date, my neighbor’s wedding day as she dressed as a bride, throwing rice, the terror of the ambulance as it appeared on the street for it could not bode well for anyone we knew, the group games organized casually in the street, just sitting on the stoop watching the occasional car appear, and watching the ordinary occurrences of everyday life that the author so easily illustrates on every page.
The author has brought the struggles and triumphs of an immigrant family to life, brilliantly, and while it could have been depressing, it was told in such a way as to be uplifting, leaving the reader with an inspiring view about the effect of honest effort and hard work because it led to the fulfillment of dreams. Their dreams were realistic; they took baby steps, not giant steps, to achieve their goals, and they appreciated what life provided. Each generation surpassed the one before it.
As the book opens with a focus on an untimely death, it closes with the impending death of the elderly narrator, which is in the natural order of things, but most important, the book is the story of "someone" and a life well lived.