Book Blog: The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan
On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought I would review a book that has a special place on my bookshelf. The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, by Jennifer Armstrong, is one of my all-time favorites. It is the story of an Irish immigrant struggling to find her identity in a new land, while the nation she now lives in, is embattled in a struggle for identity during the Civil War.
Mairhe lives in Swampoodle, Washington, D.C., a grimy Irish slum. Her brother Mike who has been hired as a laborer to build the new dome on the Capitol building, decides to join up with the Union Army. Her sick father longs to return to Ireland, a dream that cannot be realized because there is no money to send him back.
What I love most about this book is Mairhe’s narrative. There is both tenderness and strength in her words. Jennifer Armstrong uses a faint, but beautiful theme of threads to support Mairhe’s many internal conflicts about living in America, all the more poignant because Mairhe was a lacemaker in Ireland. When she cautions her brother about getting embroiled in the war, “It’s their fight, not ours,” he accuses her of being “altogether Irish.” The accusation causes her pain:
“There was a knot in me that I thought might break, he pulled it so hard.”
When she dreams of her beloved Slingo and a time when her father was not ill, she admonishes herself for not living in the present, afraid that her conflicted feelings will cause her to break apart.
“... This loss of things, this angry breaking apart of what I loved and what was best around me, had plagued me all through the years… I must clutch my hands together and feel my fingers, to see that I myself was not falling into shards and fragments or tearing down the things around me as I fell… But no, I was not broken, though I felt as slender and drawn as a thread.”
I loved the idea that Mairhe uses her lace making skills to aid her father. As a woman, Mairhe is limited by the restrictions society placed on her regarding political expression and livelihood. And yet, as is true throughout history, women have always found a way to circumvent reality through ingenuity and perseverance.
I believe that the best of historical fiction puts a human face on dates and outcomes and events. We are able to see that history is not black and white, but so many shades of gray. With the backdrop of the new Capitol dome being constructed, and the Battle of Gettysburg looming near, we’re treated to a story of young woman in a very tumultuous time who is learning who she is and what she is capable of.
“Can a person be two things at once? Can we believe in one thing strongly and equally in its opposite? Can we be both American and not American, Irish and not Irish? Must we choose?”
The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan brings home the sacrifices of war, for citizens and new comers, in a very personal and emotional way. I’ve re-read it many times, sometimes just for the beauty of the telling. Whenever I put it down, I think about how history does not have a single narrator nor is it without conflicts. People in wartime have doubts and dreams. Soldiers can be valiant and fearful at the same time. When you are in the middle of a battle, you don’t know the outcome. When you chose to live in a new country, you are in the middle of a battle as well for your heart and loyalty.
I’m thankful this Memorial Day for those at home and abroad who didn’t know the outcome. You are remembered.