Summary and book reviews of The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

The Walking People

by Mary Beth Keane

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane X
The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2010, 416 pages

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Book Summary

Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in the west of Ireland until she found herself on a ship bound for New York. Fifty years later, when the Ireland of her memory bears little resemblance to that of present day, she fears that it is still possible to lose all when she discovers that her children—with the best of intentions— have conspired to unite the worlds she’s so carefully kept separate for decades.

Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in the west of Ireland until she found herself on a ship bound for New York, along with her sister Johanna and a boy named Michael Ward.

Labeled a "softheaded goose" by her family, Greta discovers that in America she can fall in love, raise her own family, and earn a living. Though she longs to return and show her family what she has made of herself, her decision to spare her children knowledge of a secret in her past forces her to keep her life in New York separate from the life she once loved in Ireland, and tears her apart from the people she is closest to.

Even fifty years later, when the Ireland of her memory bears little resemblance to that of the present day, she fears that it is still possible to lose all when she discovers that her children—with the best of intentions— have conspired to unite the worlds she’s so carefully kept separate for decades.

A beautifully old-fashioned novel, The Walking People is a debut of remarkable range and power.

1

At home in Ballyroan, in the single-story cottage that stood beside the sea, in the bed she shared with her older sister, eight-year-old Greta Cahill woke before dawn to a sound that was not the ocean, was not the animals bawling into the wind, was not a slammed gate, a clanging cowbell, or the rain beating on the gable. The sound was different, it was a first, and to hear it better Greta pushed the layers of blankets away from her shoulders and sat up.

"You’re letting in the cold," Johanna said into the dark without whispering, and tugged at the blankets Greta had pushed away. As they struggled, a faint whiff of salmon stopped Greta’s hands. She had forgotten that part of last night’s catch was lined up on a shallow tray and resting in the emptied top drawer of the dresser she and Johanna shared. Greta pictured the six flat bodies in a neat row--tails to the back, heads to the front, all split along the backbone and buried in salt. The smell was barely noticeable so ...

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Introduction


Greta Cahill never believed she would leave her village in the west of Ireland until she found herself on a ship bound for New York, along with her sister Johanna and a boy named Michael Ward. Labeled a "softheaded goose" by her family, Greta discovers that in America she can fall in love, raise her own family, and earn a living. Though she longs to return and show her family what she has made of herself, her decision to spare her children knowledge of a secret in her past forces her to keep her life in New York separate from the life she once loved in Ireland, and tears her from the people she holds closest. Even fifty years later, when the Ireland of her memory bears little resemblance to that ...
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Reviews

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
The Walking People is thoughtful and appealing. It doesn't have much narrative energy -- it actually slows down after Greta, Johanna and Michael leave Ireland -- and at times Keane's prose strains for lyrical effect, but it's a solid, intelligent piece of work.

Booklist
In her debut, Keane marries a deliciously old-fashioned style of storytelling with a fresh take on the immigrant experience. … Tracking the family from 1956 to the present, Keane gives a heartfelt account of their pain and their joy while also minutely exploring varied settings and occupations. A warm, involving family drama that makes a triumph of Greta's transformation from misfit to capable wife and mother.

Publishers Weekly
Her romance is also authentic and unsentimental, and despite the stodgy storytelling, her coming-of-age reflects a fresh take on the lives recent immigrants can create.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes joyous and tender - one of those stories that lingers in the reader's memory as a lived experience.

Library Journal
This is a richly detailed, powerfully evocative novel ... Keane's first novel is as powerful as it is relevant. Enthusiastically recommended.

Author Blurb Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate, 2001 to 2003.
Mary Beth Keane has produced a compelling drama of transatlantic Irish life, told with a truthfulness that is felt not only in the sweep and charm of the story but in its very sentences. The Walking People is an irresistible blend of narrative and syntactic authenticity.

Reader Reviews

Diane

An Interesting Tale of Irish Immigrants
As one of Irish heritage, I was drawn to The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane. The author pulls the reader into the world of Irish immigrants Michael and Greta Ward, telling us their story first as country people living in a remote Irish town. ...   Read More
Jeanne Murrell

Beginning, Middle, End
The author captures the imagination in her vivid description of Ireland and the lives of the people left behind. The part dealing with letters is very interesting but at the end, the book simply lies down and dies. A book needs a beginning, a ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Irish Travellers

Among themselves, Travellers refer to themselves as Pavees.  To outsiders they are often referred to as pikeys, knackers or tinkers (the latter two descriptions refer to traditional crafts in which they were employed, rendering animals and tin-smithing; the first two are considered particularly derogatory). In Irish, they are known as Lucht Siúil - the walking people - hence the title of Mary Beth Keane's novel.  Sometimes they are also referred to as diddycoys - which is a Roma term for a child of mixed Roma and non-Roma parentage; when used in the context of Travellers it refers to the fact that they are not "Gypsy" by blood but have adopted a similar lifestyle.

A 2006 Irish national census recorded 22,400 ...

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