Excerpt from The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Walking People

by Mary Beth Keane

The Walking People
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 416 pages
    May 2010, 416 pages

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"It’s something to do with the salmon," Johanna said when he left, still hopping from foot to foot. Greta didn’t understand about the salmon, so she didn’t answer. She suspected that Johanna didn’t understand either but liked to pretend that she did.

In another minute Lily came out, tying the belt of her long cardigan, and told Johanna to either get back under the covers or get dressed. "You too," she said to Greta. She lit the paraffin lamp in the hall, twisting the knob to raise the wick and make the yellow flame higher. The boys - Jack, Little Tom, and Padraic - were already outside with Big Tom; Greta could hear the low hum of their voices traveling on the heavy air of dawn. As her much older brothers, they existed for Greta as a unit, all roughly the same age--twenty, nineteen, eighteen--all tall, black hair, black stubble on their cheeks by the end of each day. The only thing that kept them from being three identical spokes on the same wheel was Little Tom, who was born with his top lip attached to the bottom of his nose and something wrong with the inside of his mouth.

Greta squinted to find Johanna. "What’s happening? Did Mammy go out too?" She felt for the lump of wool stockings she’d tied and left beside her bed the night before, and then for the navy cardigan that hung alongside Johanna’s at the back of the door. "Johanna?" she said, turning around and stretching her neck toward the shadowed corners of the room. "Are you there?" She felt a draft from the front door opening and closing, and she heard the other doors in the cottage shaking in their frames.

"Well, look it--" Big Tom shouted from outside a moment later. His voice was big, full of tobacco, turf smoke, and crushed seashells whipped up by the wind. "Get inside, girl. Lily! Get this child inside!" Lily had just plunged her hands into the water pail in the kitchen when she heard him and rushed out of the house to catch Johanna, who’d taken off in a run across the yard to the field, where a woman’s body lay in the grass.

"It’s the tinker from yesterday," Johanna shouted as Lily hooked her around the waist and pulled her back toward the house. "Greta, remember your tinker from yesterday?" Johanna kicked as she was pulled. She put both heels into the dirt and drew tracks.

Greta stood framed in the open cottage door, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan over her hands. It was the kind of day that wouldn’t get any brighter, gray upon gray in every direction. She could feel the dampness on her skin, weighing down her clothes and making her shiver. She put her knuckle in her mouth and began to suck.

"Greta?" Lily said. "Come in now, will you? Like a good girl? Like two good girls, you’ll both wait by the fire." Lily blessed herself. "Lord to mercy on the poor woman."

"It’s an awful day to be dead in a field, isn’t it, Mammy?" Johanna said, her breath ragged, the heat of her body coming through her sweater, cutting through the cold and the damp so that Greta could feel it as her sister brushed past, flicking her hair this way and that as she looked back and forth between her mother and the field, where Big Tom had gone down on one knee to lift the woman into his arms.

"I’d say so, love," Lily sighed. "Greta, take them fingers out of your mouth."

Ballyroan sat at the very western edge of Ireland. Once, when the book man came to the Cahills’ door selling volumes on all subjects, he’d taken Greta on his knee and told her to find her village on the map he unfolded and unfolded until it was the width of their kitchen table. When she couldn’t do that, he told her to find Connemara. When she couldn’t do that either, he used his finger to find Galway for her and covered the whole west of Ireland in the process. She was surprised to learn that at the end of all that ocean that began at the end of their lane was a piece of land a hundred times the size of Ireland, and that someone over there might be standing at the end of her own lane and looking back toward her.

Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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