Title: Decanted Truths
Author: Melanie Forde
Genre: Literary / Women’s Fiction / Family Saga
For Irish immigrant families like the Harrigans and Gavagans, struggle has been the name of the game since they arrived in Boston in the nineteenth century. For twice-orphaned Leah Gavagan, who comes of age in the Depression, the struggle is compounded by bizarre visions that disrupt her daily life — and sometimes come true. She has difficulty fitting in with her surroundings: whether the lace-curtain Dorchester apartment overseen by her judgmental Aunt Margaret or the wild Manomet bluff shared with her no-nonsense Aunt Theo and brain-damaged Uncle Liam. A death in the family disrupts the tepid life path chosen for Leah and sets her on a journey of discovery. That journey goes back to the misadventures shaping the earlier generation, eager to prove its hard-won American credentials in the Alaskan gold rush, the Spanish-American War, and The Great War. She learns of the secrets that have bound Theo and Margaret together. Ultimately, Leah learns she is not who she thought she was. Her new truth both blinds and dazzles her, much like the Waterford decanter at the center of her oldest dreams — an artifact linking three Irish-American families stumbling after the American Dream.
Testing, one last time, the security of the replacement shingles he had just applied, [Paulie] made note of where his toolbox and bucket of tar lay. He didn’t want to trip when rising… Peering above the roof ridge, Paulie’s eyes promptly watered from the brilliance of the sunlight bedazzling the water under an azure sky. From this perspective, as he knelt on the landward side of the roof, the water didn’t appear below him so much as in front of him, as if it were spreading out to infinity in mid-air.
Is that dot on the right Race Point Light? That’s twenty miles away as the gull flies!
What’s more, he thought he could see the open ocean beyond Provincetown, plus the earth’s curve limiting this otherwise endless horizon. On this phenomenally crisp afternoon, Paulie fantasized he might even be able to see his homeland. Not just the Azores, but Portugal!
Only half-rising, he clambered higher for a better look… Monitoring his foot placement, he suddenly chided himself for classifying those two landmasses across the vast blue sea as home.
Both my parents were born in Massachusetts, for Chrissakes!
As he straightened up, he was glad for indulging his irrational urge and understood Theo’s fondness for this view, probably worth all the gales in Christendom.
Just shy of the roof ridge, he spread his feet to shoulder width and raised a palm to test for breezes. The air was remarkably still. Nevertheless, the arm movement muddled his equilibrium. Or maybe the blame lay with those perspective-distorting whitecap whorls dancing before him, instead of below him (or so it seemed). Both arms rocketed out to restore his balance. Relaxing into his new position, Paulie felt as confident as a mountain goat—even though he stood atop a two-and-a-half-story clapboard house perched on a cliff one hundred feet above the churning bay…
Confidently braced at the roof ridge, Paulie spread out his arms. Not for balance, but to embrace the view, the sun, the water, life. He tossed his head back and gulped in the clean, salt air while he maintained that open-hearted posture… Feeling the sun on his upturned palms, he realized he looked very much like the statue of Christ the Redeemer, now nearing completion in Rio de Janeiro. He had marveled at the newsreel footage of that hundred-foot work of art, dramatically sited on a mountaintop overlooking the city. And now here he was, looking out, arms spread above Cape Cod Bay, just as the Nazarene carpenter held all of Guanabara Bay in his embrace.
The Manomet workman wondered if Jesus had ever felt similarly invulnerable in a lifespan that ended only a few years beyond Paulie’s current age. Had the Redeemer known what it was to feel this alive, this sun-kissed, this synchronized with every heartbeat on the planet?
Perception competes with reality in any immigrant’s assessment of life in America. For millions of Irish who crossed the Atlantic in the nineteenth century, perception was paramount—not because they experienced hardship or success to any greater degree than their counterparts from Germany or Italy, but because the Irish had a lively disregard for reality. For eight centuries, they had denied their mortality by charging into one hopeless rising after another. Even a well-educated Irishman acknowledged the geomantic pull of the Four Green Fields, with their earth and water spirits, their sacred wells, and their enchanted crossroads. And whenever reality intruded too roughly, the Irish were adept at numbing themselves with alcohol.
Perception of the great American melting pot varied from Irishman to Irishman. Many willingly lived in wretchedly overcrowded conditions in Boston’s Fort Hill ghetto or the North End, overpowered by the stench of open sewers. They were in constant danger of contracting typhoid fever and consumption or asphyxiating in a tenement or factory fire. For some, the bitter reality of American cities was worse than the life they’d escaped on the other side of the Atlantic. The psychological challenges were equally daunting, especially in Boston, arguably the most hostile city an Irishman could encounter in the United States. Its entrenched, homogeneous Yankee class had inherited the Puritans’ loathing for the lesser races and religions afflicting the British Isles. Yet Irish transplants insisted on sinking their roots in Cotton Mather’s hometown, even after the signs went up everywhere, snarling, “No Irish Need Apply.”
Many immigrants refused to focus on the direness of their circumstances because their faith in a glorious future was unshakable. Everything would work out for them next year or in the next decade. And if it didn’t, well, their children would be the ones to realize the American Dream. Everyone knew of at least one Corkonian who had metamorphosed from an ignorant, disenfranchised starveling into a well-fed, educated, politically empowered American. In the United States, anything was possible. In America, the direction was always up.
Raised in a Boston Irish family, Melanie Forde knew her life was infinitely easier than that of her ancestors, refugees from the Potato Famine. The storytelling skills of her elders kept ancestral triumphs and tragedies alive, so that the Potato Famine and the Easter Rebellion felt as real as the Cold War. Inheriting the storyteller gene, Ms. Forde is the author of three earlier novels, her Hillwilla trilogy. She now lives far from her roots, on a West Virginia farm. She still maintains a potato patch—just in case.