Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday 31 January 2014

Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York - Cynthia Neale

Guest post by author, Cynthia Neale

The past is not dead and buried; it is not even past ~ William Faulkner

 In 1997, while dancing at an Irish pub, I glanced at the well-known poster, Irish Dresser. It is a photograph of a nineteenth-century Irish dresser with a red hen pecking on the floor before it. An Irish dresser is comparable to a china cabinet. As I danced, I imagined a young girl suffering from hunger and tragedy, but dreaming of a better life each time she climbs inside this place of refuge, her hiding place, and place of hope. Norah McCabe eventually travels across the sea from Ireland to America hidden away in this dresser. After my young adult novel, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850) was published, I thought I was finished telling Norah’s story. But I couldn’t leave her on the shores of America and also learned through genealogical research that there was a real Norah McCabe who had come from Ireland to NYC in 1847! And then I read that there was a real ship called The Star that carried passengers from Ireland to America during the Irish Famine. I had given this same name to the ship Norah McCabe travels on to America. On the real ship, there’s a family traveling on it with my last name, Neale. They had a thirteen year old girl traveling with them. Could this have been my Norah who had come to me so vividly while I danced?
The Great Hunger (Irish Famine) was a catastrophic event that left deep scars that altered Ireland and the Irish psyche. This was the worst disaster of the 19th-Century. There have been horrid “ethnic cleansing” periods in world history and this event has been debated as being the same. It was believed amongst some government officials at the time that Providence had provided the British a means, through the potato fungus and famine, to rid them of their nasty Irish problem. As a writer, this period in Irish history grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go.

The only knowledge I had about the Irish Famine came from my high school history text book, “Over a million people perished in Ireland from the loss of the potato crop.” After I wrote a short play in 1997 about The Great Hunger and while researching and writing my first novel, people asked, “Why did the Irish only eat potatoes?” OMG! Americans and even Irish-Americans did not know this history. Honestly, I hadn’t known much, either. John Walters writes, “Surveys, I’m told, indicate that the Irish people do not want to hear about the Famine. But it is also precisely why the subject must be talked about until we remember the things we never knew.” As a writer, I knew this was a subject that would become the vehicle for a story. There was no number tattooed on the Irish skin, but the marking of cultural shame was evident. Tom Hayden writes in Irish Hunger, “There are unmarked famine graves in all of us.”
I am convinced that I’ve written about a real person who lived during this period. Next, I wrote Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser that continues Norah’s story of survival in her new country, a country that despised the Irish immigrant. And then once again I assumed her story was over, but I felt the stirrings of a young woman’s dreams and struggles. And the more I read about New York City and America during the years prior to the Civil War and post massive immigration, the more intrigued I became. It was a heyday for Abolitionism, the Nativist Movement, and the Women’s Rights Movement. There were uprisings, bank runs and crashes, riots, violence, and xenophobia. Many movies and books portray the Irish woman as an ignorant Brigit who spoils the soup and talks back to her betters. Certainly there were a few of these types, but in my research I learned that Irish women far exceeded other female ethnic groups in education and economics. They climbed up in the world come hell or high water! They paraded down Fifth Avenue dressed in Paris fineries bought from the money they saved (still sending money back to Ireland), and aristocratic Protestant ladies were incensed that these Irish maids looked just like them.
I imagined the young girl, Norah, becoming a vibrant and determined young woman who desperately wanted to climb out of her Irish skin as much as she wanted to stay inside it. She desires to be free from the limitations of her race and dreams of success, but still longs to return to Ireland. The two children’s books about Norah McCabe convinced me she still had a story to tell and so I trusted her to continue to tell me her story in Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in the 19th-Century. And so she did!
Norah McCabe defies the roles and limitations of her race and gender, throwing off the washer woman domestic’s apron and strives to become someone as worthy as any Yankee Protestant woman. She stumbles and falls into her real self in an evocative, adventurous, romantic, violent city. She also attends the Seventh Annual Women’s Rights Convention, but is unable to cross the chasm between herself as an Irish immigrant woman and Protestant feminist ideology. Norah is the story of a woman who confronts prejudice, violence, and greed in a city that mystifies and helps mold her into becoming an Irish-American woman. This is a story for any immigrant in any time and for anyone who has impossible dreams.

While writing Norah, my first adult historical novel, I was surprised how much Norah McCabe taught me about letting go. In the two previous young adult books about her, I had to mother her.  There was a certain restraint I experienced in my writing that kept Norah innocent in spite of the mind boggling tragedy of living in famine conditions and coming to a new country and experiencing further hunger and deprivation. In the adult novel, Norah, my writing experience often felt as if I was flying down a steep path on a bike. I had to take my feet off the pedals, fling my legs out to the sides, and steer. It was frightening, but it was also quite thrilling. I also doubted at times whether I could thrust this child into the world to become an adult. And as much as Norah has me in her, she is her own woman. I was challenged to let her be Norah McCabe and not Cynthia Neale, somewhat akin to letting my own daughter, who has me in her, be entirely herself. There is a letting go of the story to allow it to meander where it needs to go, even if you have created big dreams for the characters and emphatically prepared for the story. I felt as if I became the time travel machine by which Norah journeyed on from the past to the page. I wondered a few times if the machine was going to crash or run out of fuel, but by the time it landed, I was ready. I gained a certain confidence I hadn’t had before, as well as humility. I love this quote by William Trevor, I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning. I write out of curiosity and bewilderment… I’ve learned a lot I could not have learned if I were not a writer. Alas, I wonder if Norah McCabe will ever leave my life, as I am now writing another novel about her life in New York City that takes place during the Civil War. My working title is, The Irish Milliner.

About the book

Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York by Cynthia Neale
Once she was a child of hunger, but now Norah McCabe is a woman with courage, passion, and reckless dreams. Her story is one of survival, intrigue, and love. This Irish immigrant woman cannot be narrowly defined! She dons Paris fashion and opens a used-clothing store, is attacked by a vicious police commissioner, joins a movement to free Ireland, and attends a National Women's Rights Convention. And love comes to her slowly one night on a dark street, ensnared by the great Mr. Murray, essayist and gang leader extraordinaire. Norah is the story of a woman who confronts prejudice, violence, and greed in a city that mystifies and helps to mold her into becoming an Irish-American woman.

Author Bio of Cynthia Neale:

Cynthia Neale is an American with Irish ancestry and a native of the Finger Lakes region in New York. She now resides in Hampstead, New Hampshire. She has long possessed a deep interest in the tragedies and triumphs of the Irish during the Potato Famine or “The Great Hunger.” She is a graduate of Vermont College in Montpelier, VT, with a B.A. degree in Literature and Creative Writing. Norah is her first historical novel for adult readers. She is also the author of two young adult novels, The Irish Dresser, A Story of Hope during The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor, 1845-1850) and Hope in New York City, The Continuing Story of The Irish Dresser. Her forthcoming book, Pavlova in a Hat Box, is a collection of essays and dessert recipes. She is currently researching and writing a sequel to Norah, as well as a novel about Queen Catharine, a Native American of New York whose village was destroyed by General John Sullivan in 1779.


  1. Great essay on this book. As someone who is very interested in history I know woefully too little about The Great Hunger.

    Very interesting thoughts on the development of the character and how she seems to have taken on a life of her own!

  2. I sympathize, Cynthia, with the feeling of having to let your character go and not mother her. It's painful as a writer to let our heroines live as they would have in the period, as they seem to insist upon going, even when we see the pitfalls they are about to fall into. Engaging post.

    1. There is a mystery to this process of being taken down a different road with your protagonist than you intended. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing automatic writing, but certainly it isn't that easy. It can be ghostly, to be sure. Thanks for reading.

  3. A very comprehensive review Lindsay. I was interested to see you have taken part in a blog tour I always decline. :)

  4. Great insight Lins, I sometimes like reading books like and learn some history.


    1. One of the things I enjoy with the love of reading, is that we can also learn. :)


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