The list of hefty novels which explore the terrible time of the Great Hunger continues to grow, and is all the more noteworthy because so many of the works are impressive. In the wake of older classics such as Liam O'Flaherty's "Famine," we've had Peter Quinn's brilliant "Banished Children of Eve" and Kevin Baker's "Paradise Alley," both of which explored New York City as desperate emigrants were fleeing Ireland. Irish America contributor Mary Pat Kelly is the latest to add to the contemporary canon of Irish Famine novels with "Galway Bay." This is an epic story on a grand scale, which explores not just the Famine in Ireland, but a wide range of other events from the era, including the U.S. Civil War and the Fenian invasion of Canada. At the center of "Galway Bay" are Honora Keeley and her sister Marie. Early on they live what, in many ways, was the timeless life of ancient Ireland - amidst fishermen and farmers who pass ancient songs, stories and traditions on to the next generation. Of course, this way of life is disrupted by the Famine, as well as by the woefully inadequate response of the British government. Honora and Marie (I hope it doesn't ruin the story to tell you that they both end up widowed) make a vow to survive the calamity and manage to escape to the U.S. with their children. After arriving in New Orleans they head for Chicago in search of Honora's brother-in-law who is involved in the cause of Irish freedom. Mary Pat Kelly's knowledge of Irish and American-Irish history is what drives this novel. Her descriptions of the immigrants aboard ship, their journey to the Chicago suburb of Hardscrablble, which later became Bridgeport, and work in the slaughterhouses is especially evocative, as indeed is her coverage of the Irish participation on both sides of the Civil War. "Galway Bay," which is based on Kelly's family's own experiences, also offers a glimpse into how women specifically navigated the nightmarish Famine experience and managed to carve out a place for themselves in America. A writer and director of documentaries, and the movie Proud, a story of African-American servicemen in World War II, Kelly is also the author of a previous novel entitled Special Intentions. "Galway Bay," though, is clearly a labor of love, not to mention the labor of a lifetime. Kelly has ambitiously attempted to capture the 19th-century Irish-American experience, and manages to help us understand how we are still living with this legacy today. ($26.99 / 562 pages / Grand Central)
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