The Walking People is a debut novel for Mary Beth Keane and it is a beautiful book and one that I really enjoyed. It starts out slowly and builds steadily throughout. I think I would describe it as being a comforting novel to me in the way that it’s written. I first fell in love with books set in Ireland when I read Galway Bay and The Walking People was another visit back into the lives and traditions of the Irish.
This book is about the Cahill’s, who live in a small little village in the west of Ireland, near Galway Bay. The first part of the novel introduces us to the family and their lives but the story really focuses on Greta and her sister Johanna and even more so on Greta. Greta, by all descriptions, seems to be a bit of an odd one in looks and personality although I’m never quite clear on being able to picture what she might look like. Johanna, being older, has always been the more outgoing one and Greta always tags along with her. As sisters, they are very close being the only two girls in a house full of boys.
Johanna does not want to spend the rest of her life in Ireland. She knows that a bigger life exists outside of their small existence and she wants it. The family had previously met Michael who is a what is called a tinker or traveller, gypsies to us, in Ireland and she is set on having him go to America with her. Greta wants no part of it. Her safe zone is at home in the protection of her family and a community that is already aware of her oddities and accepts them. However, her mother doesn’t agree. The only way Johanna is going is if Greta goes too. She knew her daughter would never have any hope of doing anything in Ireland and she wanted more for her.
Thus begins the journey to America, more specifically New York. Can you imagine coming from a tiny village in Ireland and seeing New York in the 1960’s? I imagine it would be overwhelming and it was no less for Greta, Johanna and Michael. What a different life from what they were used to. I really enjoyed this part of the novel, it was my favorite. The story really gripped me from this point forward.
Greta was my favorite character. I don’t know whether it was because from the beginning you know she’s odd and you just feel a kinship with her or because, even with her being that way, she’s very determined to succeed and much more intelligent than others ever gave her credit for. America was a revelation for Greta. Here she could succeed and make something of herself. She ends up getting herself a job and she’s good at it. She’s learning to make a life away from the confines of Ireland. She and Michael end up together and continue to build a life and a family. However, as in all family dramas, there is a secret that threatens to tear apart all bonds and destroy people.
The novel takes place from 1956 to 2007. There is a section when Greta first gets to America that is written in epistolary style and that was a nice addition. This novel is really focused on family and what it means to be a family. I loved reading about life for the Irish people when they came to America and discover how very different people are there compared to where they come from. In addition, the writing is beautiful and I’d like to share a favorite quote with you, a simple one yet so amazing…
- ‘We don’t settle in places. We settle in people.’ (pg 216)
Turning the last page of this novel was kind of sad. I didn’t want it to end. I fell into the characters lives within the pages of this novel and really still wanted to be with them. I would love to see more by Mary Beth Keane in the future. Many thanks to Keturah with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sending me The Walking People. Make sure to visit Mary Beth Keane’s website here and you can buy this novel here in the US and here in Canada. Please check back later today though as maybe there may be a little sharing going on.