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Reading Guides

Gracelin O'Malley
Ann Moore
Paperback

 

INTRODUCTION

Nineteenth-century Ireland was a place of harsh suffering and haunting beauty, of famine and fortune, tragedy and triumph. This rich, evocative novel captures the dreams of one extraordinary young woman who lived through those dark timesand found hope for the future...

Life has not been easy for Gracelin O'Malley. Only fifteen when she married the local English landlord to save her family from financial ruin, she has tried her best to be a dutiful wife, providing him with an heir. Despite her husband's escalating cruelty, Gracelin's spirit remains unbroken, though she is no longer the innocent country girl she once was. As famine devastates the land, she openly defies him by feeding the desperate souls who come to her door. As political unrest sweeps across the countryside, she harbors Irish rebelsher own brilliant brother among themkeeping hidden, as well, the deepest secret of her heart. And as disaster threatens those she loves most, Grace fights to keep them alive, her profound courage inspiring everyone around her...

Beautifully crafted and emotionally powerful, Gracelin O'Malley is a breathtaking historical novel that marks the debut of a dazzling new storyteller.

 

ABOUT ANN MOORE

Ann MooreAnn Moore was born in England and raised in the Pacific Northwest, spending summers on Vashon Island where she read and read and read. She received an MA in English from Western Washington University, and was a recipient of the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award for short fiction in 1997. An avid reader and researcher, Ann is currently working on her next novel, a sequel to Gracelin O’Malley set in America. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, with her husband, son, and daughter.

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANN MOORE

Q. You have written a novel of remarkable passion and historic sweep. What drew you to set your characters in this turbulent period of Irish history?

A. When I began plotting this book, it actually took place in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, years after the great famine of 1845. Gracelin O'Malley was a secondary character, an Irish immigrant hoping to make a new life for herself and her young daughter. In order to make her voice authentic, I began reading Irish history and journal excerpts and discovered all of the dramatic and complex elements that made the Irish famine such a profound tragedy. Though the Irish were no strangers to hardship—blights and crop failures were regular occurrences in their lives—I was struck by their continued optimism in the face of extreme poverty, their spirit and simple joy in living each day, their love for their children and pride in their heritage as the descendants of kings. It became almost immediately clear that what I was truly meant to write was the story of this young woman, and the incredible people who were her countrymen.

Q. There's such vivid historical detail and richly imagined dialogue in this novel. How did you prepare yourself to recreate the world of Gracelin O'Malley?

A. I tried to steep myself in writings of that period. I read novels written during that time in history or written about that time, as well as journals, books of letters, and as much history as I could digest in order to render the world as clearly as possible for myself and the reader. Finding a rhythm for the beautifully lyrical Irish speech was my greatest challenge, so I paid close attention to sentence structure in diaries and letters until I heard those voices clearly in my own mind and could translate them to the page with confidence.

Q. All writers are influenced to some degree by the authors they love. Are there Irish writers you particularly enjoy?

A. I was greatly taken with the traditions of mythology and folklore that the Irish have kept alive in stories, ballads and poems, despite centuries of oppression. Irish writers I especially appreciate are James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Edna O'Brien. Other authors who have influenced my writing are Elizabeth Gaskell, Eudora Welty, Anton Chekov, V.S. Pritchett, and Zora Neale Hurston. For the sheer beauty of language, I read poetry and the King James version of the Bible. There are also a number of first-time novelists I've read lately who impress me tremendously with their seemingly effortless prose and excellent storytelling.

Q. The character of Henry Adams is drawn with great sympathy even though he's an English soldier. Was this a conscious decision?

A. No matter which side incurs it, loss of life in war is tragedy. Henry was a good man caught up in circumstances beyond his control, a man who came to understand his place in the world just before his life was taken. The truth is, there were many sympathetic English, many young soldiers who entered Ireland with one mind-set and left with another after confronting the reality of the Irish-English struggle. Their story is a deserving part of the whole and one that applies to war in many parts of the world.

Q. Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country in 1845. Why did you choose to make Gracelin a Protestant?

A. As a Catholic, Gracelin's options in 1845 would have been much more limited, so part of that decision was about providing a more complicated storyline for Grace. For instance, marrying Donnelly would have been out of the question. But I also wanted to show that this historical struggle, which is so often portrayed as religious, is really about centuries of poverty and oppression. And, as in any moral struggle, there are representatives of good and evil on both sides; to be English or Protestant did not mean that one was devoid of all decency, nor did being Irish or Catholic ensure an honorable character. By allowing Gracelin O'Malley to be the Irish daughter of a disillusioned Catholic and a devout Protestant, with a child who is half English, and a lover who is Catholic, with friends and enemies in all camps, I hoped to represent the real participants in history as the complex individuals they were rather than simply "good" or "bad".

Q. Self-sacrifice emerges as a major issue in this book. Why is that?

A. Often, people who lead struggles against oppression and tyranny are those who believe that man's right to govern his own life with freedom and dignity is God-given, and that the battle is really between good and evil in the world, a battle which then transcends the individual. In Ireland, steeped first in a tradition of fierce, noble warrior poets, and then in the stories of the saints, they were well-versed in the higher calling of self-sacrifice; and, of course, by the time of the 1845 famine, they simply had nothing left but that higher calling to give them hope.

Q. Now that you have written of Gracelin's life in Ireland, will you continue her story in the next book?

A. Reading the history of the Irish immigrants who came to America was deeply moving and I realized I wanted to bring Grace full circle to the place where we first met in the plotting of the original book. In the second novel, Grace and her daughter sail on a famine ship to New York where they are reunited with Sean and begin a new life. Manhattan is an incredible place at this time in history, so many levels of society intersect and are impacted by the flood of immigrants who pour into the city each day. This was only 150 years ago—the blink of an eye in history—and an irresistible time about which to write since these are the great-great grandparents of so many of us.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. By the end of the novel, Grace has lost nearly everyone she ever loved and yet she is not without hope nor has her spirit been crushed. What has prepared her to survive such terrible emotional blows? Why is it that the spirits of some are so resilient, while others are defeated?
     
  2. What do you think about Grace's decision to leave the infant boy behind with her father and head for the New World? Do you think she did the right thing? Can you imagine making the same choice in similar circumstances?
     
  3. How much of Gracelin's spirit and will to survive derive from love of her family, particularly her children? Do you think people often summon the strength to go on despite enormous loss because of their children?
     
  4. Faith and redemption are major themes in this book. How does faith, or lack of it, shape the lives of these characters? Do you know people whose lives have been sustained by great faith? Do you know anyone who has redeemed herself, turned her life around with an act of generosity or heroism that compensated for a previously selfish existence?
     
  5. Has reading this story changed your perception of the 1845 famine? Is there anything you know now that you did not know before? How does it effect your view of the current struggles in Northern Ireland?