The Walking People

The Walking People

I read and watch so much paranormal or spooky stuff that I sometimes tricked myself into looking for something that isn't there. Twisted, the TV show that premiered a few months ago, is about the assimilation of a murderer back into his society. He killed his aunt when he was very young and refused to say why he did it. Several years later he is let free and he goes on to high school, where he is called Socio, apparently a new twist on psycho, and viewed with extreme suspicion by almost everyone. His two friends from when he was younger are trying to stick by him but it's hard. And then a girl at the school is murdered and it all goes to hell, as you can imagine. There's some sort of important thing about a necklace and the protagonist protecting his family, which somehow led me to believe that he was going to say his aunt was a witch (the necklace would be a talisman of some sort) and he had to kill her to protect his family from her sorcery. I spent the whole season waiting for this to happen but nothing. It is apparently just a teen drama about some pretty deep subjects. How disappointing for me. (But it's well written and it held my interest so in reality it shouldn't have been disappointing at all. It's just my OCD that spoiled it a little.)

That same mindset got me into trouble again when I started reading The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane. In my defense I am taking that class on the Walking Dead, which is kind of giving a very specific meaning to words having to do with walking. The book begins with a man called Michael who is working on some insane underground project. (Take the highest building you've seen since you came to America a character in the book says. Now pretend it stretches down instead of up. That's how deep they dig.) He is headed to work, in a tunnel dripping with water, about to put in his final day.

When I mentally combine the elements of deep underground, water dripping, and last day of work of course I think there is going to be some disturbance from the digging and some creature buried millennium ago will stir and eat everyone, while simultaneously releasing pathogen after pathogen. Or at the very least there is going to be a terrible accident; a tunnel collapse, flooding, a murderous coworker, something. But I was dead wrong. The book is not horror and it's not a thriller. It's a a story about family ties, emigration, the pull of the old country, the hurt loved ones do to each other and the power, or lack of power, of old secrets.

The story begins in mid-century Ireland with a biggish family; parents, three sons and two daughters. Greta, the youngest, has a reputation for being a little out of it, not quite together, always getting lost. Older sister Johanna is more of a firecracker, a girl who sees the path she wants to take and takes it, regardless of how it looks or who it might inconvenience. The family lives on a beautiful, windswept piece of land that is slowly being abandoned. There is no work in the local area, or even in the larger, metropolitan area, and people have been leaving for America for decades until hardly anyone is left.

When disaster strikes the household, and the economic outlook gets even worse, Johanna, now in her later teens, decides she's going to New York, and wants a terrified Greta to accompany her. She also asks a young man called Michael to go and to her surprise her mother not only agrees to let her go but tells Greta she has to go along. Lily, their mother, has begun to fret about what the future of the family holds and decides that it is best for the girls, although very hard on Lily and the youngest son, to go away as so many others have.

Michael isn't just making a giant change by going from a farm to New York City; he is also leaving behind his family's life on the road. They are called tinkers, the walking people, Irish travelers, and a host of less pleasant names. Michael walked away from his family group, wanting to explore settled life, but did not plan on going so far as America.

Told mainly from Greta's perspective, The Walking People deals with culture clashes, generational conflict, family loss (and gain) and covers a span of more than fifty years. As she did in her novel Fever, which I discussed recently, the author writes a detailed story of working class people constantly adapting to big changes.

I had one little nitpick – because the story begins in the very recent past, as Michael is about to retire, there isn't much suspense. When things go wrong in a dangerous way, the reader is pretty sure that not only is he going to come through just fine, he'll still be able to do manual labor. It's like when you're watching a suspenseful show where someone may or may not be dead or injured and then they show the preview for the next episode, with the character doing back-flips or whatever.

But all that aside, The Walking People is a lovely read, especially for anyone interested in recent history. (Is recent history an oxymoron?) If you like reading about the “Madmen ere”, but don't like to watch obnoxious jerks with more money than sense, this novel should be extra enjoyable.

You can read an excerpt here, although you may need to click the excerpt link once you land on the page. It's on the About the Book tab, next to synopsis.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a poem from Australian poet Gig Ryan. From her book The Division of Anger this poem is called If I Had a Gun. It's powerful and to the point. If you're someone who is street hassled or treated like a child because of your gender/sexuality you will likely find much that echoes moments of your own life.