1865. The Civil War is ending. Eighteen years after the Irish famine-ship Star of the Sea docked at New York, a daughter of its journey, Eliza Duane Mooney, sets out on foot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, crossing a ravaged continent on a quest. Eliza is searching for a young boy she has not seen in four years, one of the hundred thousand children drawn into the war. His fate has been mysterious and will prove extraordinary.
It is a walk that will have consequences for many seemingly unconnected survivors: the stunning intellectual Lucia-Cruz McLelland, who deserts New York City to cast her fate with mercurial hero James Con O'Keeffe -- convict, revolutionary, governor of the desolate Western township of Redemption Falls; rebel guerilla Cole McLaurenson, who fuels his own gruesome Westward mission with the blind rage of an outlaw; runaway slave Elizabeth Longstreet, who turns resentment into grace in a Western wilderness where nothing is as it seems.
O'Keeffe's career has seen astonishing highs and lows. Condemned to death in 1848 for plotting an insurrection against British rule in Ireland, his sentence was commuted to life transportation to Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania. From there he escaped, abandoning a woman he loved, and was shipwrecked in the Pacific before making his way to the teeming city of New York. A spellbinding orator, he has been hailed a hero by Irish New Yorkers, refugees from the famine that has ravaged their homeland. His public appearances are thronged to the rafters and his story has brought him fame. He has married the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family, but their marriage is haunted by a past full of secrets. The terrors of Civil War have shaken his every belief. Now alone in the west, he yearns for new beginnings.
Redemption Falls is a Dickensian tale of war and forgiveness, of strangers in a strange land, of love put to the ultimate test. Packed with music, balladry, poetry, and storytelling, this is "a vivid mosaic of a vast country driven wild by war" (Irish Independent), containing "moments of sustained brilliance which in psychological truth and realism make Daniel Defoe look like a literary amateur" (Sunday Tribune). With this riveting historical novel of urgent contemporary resonance, the author of the bestselling Star of the Sea now brings us a modern masterpiece.
Irish author O'Connor (Star of the Sea) delivers a highly stylized post-Civil War period pastiche centered on Redemption Falls, a tumultuous frontier town in the Mountain Territory (presumably in present day Utah or Montana). Told through the posters, correspondence, poems/songs, newspaper articles and interview transcripts collected in the early 20th century by a university professor (and nephew of one of the book's prominent characters), the narrative follows acting governor James Con O'Keeffe as he feuds with his ravishing wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland, about the mute 12-year-old drummer boy Con takes in and wants to adopt. The boy, Jeddo Mooney, is in a bad way and unaware that his tenacious older sister, Eliza Duane Mooney, is hiking from war-ravaged Louisiana to find him. (Her journey is its own mini-epic.) Con's past as an English criminal who barely escaped the noose and his behavior as an American politician demonstrate his noble but flawed character, while a chorus of minor voices add texture to a narrative already rich with a medley of languages, dialects and clashing cultural mores. The novel is complex, ambitious and at times difficult (many characters are uneducated, and their journals and letters prove to be occasionally impenetrable). O'Connor succeeds as a ventriloquist who brings to life a wide cross-section of Americana. (Oct.)
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October 08, 2007
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Excerpt from Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF ELIZA DUANE MOONEY
Her leave-taking - The strangeness of time - A fat man - Little Rock John Cory & his family - The lustful preacher
The quarter-light was rising as she hurried out from Baton Rouge: through the criminal districts of town, then the black section, then the Irish, past the clustered Union sentries on the Telegraph road, the maws of Federal cannons ranked and aimed toward the north, then onward over the viaduct into barricaded swampland where once, not long ago, the slaves had toiled. It was January the 17th, 1865. The end of the War was coming.
Walking away from a scalpeen shack. The grits of the road on roadskinned soles. Grind of the shingles into lacerated arches. Dazzle of pain, the cramps through the hamstrings, and the hopeless prayers for shoes.
It took her almost a month to slog across Louisiana. Fifteen miles a day. Twenty-six thousand paces. A soldier, vittled and booted, might have deserted at such a burden. Eliza Duane Mooney did not.
She had not been long walking when it started to happen. Everything was coming to merit attention. A rice-field. Two flies. A dead chickenhawk in a gully. The eyes of hungry alligators resentful in the slime. All of it seemed equal, which is one definition of madness. The weight of the world had lost proportion.
There were days when she hobbled until the world began to shimmer. The sky billowed around her like the folds of apocalypse and the whitehot egg of pain in her breast threatened to crack with a seepage of venom. She would lie wherever she fell, gaping up at the crows - would crawl from the road if she was able. Whatever burned to hatch must be palliated by stillness. She came to believe it could hear her.
Riders went by, or waggons full of men. Nobody stopped. Perhaps they did not see her. This is what she would tell herself as she shivered in the ditches. I am becoming invisible now.
April comes in. Time is moving strangely. Tenses grow confused.
Near El Dorado, Arkansas, a stockman is yammering to some farmwomen. Lee is defeated! The rebellion no more! Jefferson Davis in shackles, they say, arrested in a woman's corsets! As she approaches the huddle, the settlers gape at her like goslings. It must be that they can smell her, she thinks.
The minstrel boy to the war has gone. In the ranks of death you'll find him.
A fat man regards her, eyes crinkling in the sunlight. 'Get walkin, daughter. Aint nothin for you here.'As if to italicize the rejection, he pulls back the hem of his coat, beneath which is a cane in a scabbard like a sword's. She is not thinking about the dismissal (she is accustomed to dismissal) but about the antiqueness of his accent, the poetry he talks. Git waukin, dauduh. Ain nuthn fow y he?. His vowels go bouncing on the air.
His father's sword he has girded on. And his wild harp slung behind him.
She pictures the journey as a procession of scarlet ants stretching out from the bayouland to the bastions of the Rockies. She is not truly walking fifteen hundred miles. She is crushing ants one step at a time.
Come Christmas she will be seventeen. 1865. The year the South surrendered. She has no memory of any place beyond the town of her childhood, not even of being in New Orleans with her mother. The edge of the world is the County Line. Stepping over its verge is a trespass. She is out beyond the frame of all that was given, into a land where almost everything is strange. The customs of the people. Their figures of speech. The taste of creek water. That spider on a leaf. Cherokees observing her from the crests of those hummocks. The shattering nothingness of spaces between settlements.
This was the country they'd been killing each other for. These stone walls and levees. Those barns and stunted swards. It was barely an old man's life ago that none of it was here, when the land was only the land, not acreage. Unfenced, ungridded, unmeasured, unbequeathable, a continent of forests the size of nations. The Indians named the rivers; many banks they left anonymous. Then the immigrants came to America.
She had on a tattered hand-me-down her mother once gave her: a rough-cut grogram smock like a knight's tabard of old. 'Shenick's of London' stitched into the label. In its pocket, a slingshot. A bundling on her back. That garment was the only wearing she possessed in the world. She slept in it, walked in it. It had become a kind of skin.
In the bundle, a storybook, dilapidated, spinecracked, and a canister of medicinal foot powder, and a crumpled letter. The powder proved a waste of her last four cents. She suspects it is nothing but pestleddown chalk. She may as well rub in the cinders of the road for all the alleviation it brings.