Thursday, December 3, 2020

An Open Book (Dec. 2020): Two Tales, One Tragic and One Magic

Hello, Open Bookers!  I can't wait to see what you've been reading.

Here's my first recommendation for this month: The Girl Who Came Home, a novel by Hazel Gaynor, a writer of historical fiction who is quickly becoming one of my favorites. (You might remember that I adored Gaynor's The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, which I mentioned here at the link-up back in the summer.)

This particular book drew me like a proverbial cat to cat-nip.  I have always been strangely fascinated by stories of the Titanic disaster, a tragedy as epic in proportion as the vessel itself.  But this one has an element that I truly could not resist: it features a group of would-be Irish immigrants traveling to America in steerage on the "unsinkable" giant's maiden voyage--and these fictional characters are based on the true story of 14 delightful young people who came from the same parish in Ireland.  (The Girl Who Came Home is dedicated to the memory of these real life “Addergoole Fourteen.”) How could I not read this book, I ask you?  You know how I love all things Emerald Isle, don't you?

Well, maybe you've never been to this blog before and you don't.  So before I go on telling you about the page-turner of a NYT bestseller I just read, here's a quick (and shameless!) plug for my own 2014 YA novel about some plucky Irish Catholic immigrants in 19th-century New England, Erin's Ring (a recipient of two Catholic Press Association awards that has most definitely not been a bestseller, but I think is worth a read nonetheless).

Okay, now let's get back to The Girl Who Came Home. In Gaynor's deft hands, the tale of these ill-fated 14 Irish souls from the fictional town of Ballysheen comes vibrantly alive for the reader.  I was sucked in right from the start, and also utterly thrilled that the Catholic Faith and practice thereof is mentioned frequently, without any preachiness (or any derision, which is unfortunately the way of most modern fiction, I find).

Being Catholic is a normal and vital part of these Irish characters’ lives, and it is treated as such. Seamus, the boy Maggie Murphy loves, gives her a silver hairbrush and some Rosary beads as parting gifts before she sails away from him, possibly forever. The last thing Maggie, her Aunt Kathleen, and the other dozen Titanic-bound travelers do before they leave Ballysheen to set out on their big adventure is to attend Sunday Mass at their parish church. Afterwards, the priest blesses their horse- and donkey-drawn carriages--bound for a train that will take them to Queenstown in County Cork, where they will board the ship--with holy water, and he says a prayer for protection. When the Ballysheen 14 get to Queenstown, they are pleased to find out that there is a cathedral not far from the Rooming House where they are staying for the night, and so they will be able to attend Mass in the morning before boarding Titanic.  I found these references to the deep faith of the characters so beautiful, and especially poignant knowing the horrors they were about to encounter at sea.  There are so many references to prayers offered during the voyage across the Atlantic, Rosaries said, and blessings bestowed by priests (and after the ship strikes the iceberg, many terrified passengers, understandably, turn to prayer).  The Ballysheen 14 even attend Mass on the ship.  Yet I believe that a reader of any faith could read this story and not feel uncomfortable or offended by these religious references, because historically, they are undoubtedly accurate.   

The story does go back and forth in time (a literary device that I particularly enjoy, if it is done well--and it is done to perfection here).  Readers are taken from those fateful days aboard Titanic in1912 to suburban Chicago in1982, where we meet Maggie's great-granddaughter, Grace.  Grace has decided to take a break from college, where she has been studying journalism, to help her mother cope with her father’s sudden and unexpected death. Before leaving school, Grace is offered the opportunity to write a feature article for the Chicago Tribune, but she can't decide what to write about. She's not sure the offer will even stand, if and when she ever goes back to finish her degree--but then fate steps in.  Maggie has never told her Titanic story to anyone, but after 70 years, she finally decides to tell it to Grace, giving her granddaughter the feature story of a lifetime to write about.

Grace’s published feature in the paper leads to the recovery of 14 long-lost letters from Seamus, the sweetheart Maggie left behind in Ireland when she sailed away on Titanic--the boy she never forgot and still loves.  It also puts Maggie in contact with the one other survivor from their Ballysheen group, after many years without contact.  Oh my goodness, dear readers!  It’s all so touching and romantic!

This is a thoroughly engrossing story, beautifully written, with such a poignant and satisfying conclusion.  And no way will I give even a hint of how it urned out!  Read this book yourself; it's a "must read" if I ever read one. The characters live and breathe and make you care about them deeply.  And feel free to share it with your favorite young adult reader, because there are none of those pesky scenes of physical intimacy to worry about.  The faith, perseverance, and sacrificial love displayed by the characters is truly inspiring. Is five stars the most you can give?  Okay then, five stars.  And two enthusiastic thumbs up.

My next recommendation is a different animal altogether, a sweet and thoroughly enchanting fairy tale of a novel called Comfort and Joy, by bestselling historical fiction author Kristin Hannah.

I picked up a paperback copy of this relatively short book on the spur of the moment, while on a Sam's run with my husband.  I noticed the Christmas-themed cover (who can resist a Christmas story?) and saw that it was written by the popular author of a couple of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction, The Nightengale and Winter Garden (I figured it had to be a good one if Hannah wrote it).

This is not historical fiction, but I struggle to categorize its genre.  The subtitle is a fable, and that describes the book pretty well.  It's not romance, although it is an extremely romantic story (it will make you fall in love with love); and it's not fantasy, although it does require the reader to suspend disbelief and go on a fantastical trip to an alternate world that could be a dream but might be reality.  (I know!  It sounds a little crazy--but it's crazy good, I assure you!)

I was touched to find that there are several references to attending Mass, saying prayers, and lighting candles for loved ones at church.  The story revolves around characters who are suffering unimaginable losses, who have gone through life-changing recent tragedies.  For Catholics, turning to God at such times is as natural as breathing, yet I don't often find positive references to religion and prayer in modern works of fiction in our secularized world, where God seems to be all but forgotten...but like a breath of literary fresh air, Hannah includes them in this tender, lovely, and strangely believable fable.   

As if this book wouldn't have been good enough already (I couldn't put it down and read it in two sittings), it's also got an added feature that makes it irresistible to me: an Irish character!  In the middle of the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, Hannah's main character, Joy, meets Daniel, a handsome, dark-haired Irishman with a sad past and a hint of a brogue.  Is he real, though, or just a dream?  

Oh my goodness--read this book, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.  It will make you believe in love, in miracles, in the magic of Christmas.  And what a perfect time of year to read it!

That's it for me (but head on over to Carolyn's blog for more "must reads").  I'll be back here at the blog soon, I hope, or in what I hope will be a much brighter New Year.


  1. Oh my goodness - with those glowing reviews, how can I not add these to my to-be-read list! This also reminds me I'd like to re-watch A Night to Remember! Thanks for linking up!

  2. Thanks, I will add these to my reading list!!

  3. Thanks, Laura! Both books sound very good and I will try them.