________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 8 . . . . December 5, 2008

cover Greener Grass.

Caroline Pignat.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2008.
276 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-88995-402-1.

Subject Headings:
Ireland-History-Famine, 1845-1852-Juvenile fiction.
Ireland-Migration and immigration-History-19th century-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4


Annie, Jack, Lizzie and I stood around the basket where Mam dropped the last potato.

The small mound couldn’t have been more than a third of the crop, and those not even full grown. We’d lost two-thirds of our crop. Two-thirds less than what was barely enough. How would we survive?

“Is that all the potatoes, Mam?” Annie asked, taking her hand.

”Yes, love. That’s all,” Mam said, her voice as empty as the garden.

“What will we eat when they’re gone?” Annie asked for all of us.

I looked at Mam for an answer. She’d know. She’d have some words of hope. But all she did was shake her head as the tears streaked white lines down her dirtied face.

A keening started down in the valley and up the road. A wail echoed from the Nowlans’, the Butlers’, the Kelleys’, and the O’Tooles’ farms: Lord, oh Lord! The potatoes! The blight has come!

‘Twas as though the hills themselves were crying that day, that morning when all of Ireland awoke to the smell of hope rotting in their fields.

The place is Ireland. The date is 1847. It is the second year of the Great Famine. Potato crops are decimated by blight. Landlords raise rents and families who cannot pay are evicted, their homes burned down. Homelessness, hunger and disease spell disaster and death for hundreds of thousands.

     Into this devastating scene enters Kathleen Mary Margaret Byrne, Kit to her family and friends. Like any 14-year-old, Kit is interested in one of the local boys and hopes to see him at the dance at the crossroads or meet him at the stones for a chance to talk. But there, any resemblance to an ordinary teen ends, for Kit and her brother Jack both must work to help support their family. Things worsen as Kit’s father dies and her mother becomes ill. When the Byrnes can no longer pay the rent, they, too, are evicted. Someone has to take charge of the two younger children and somehow organize an escape to New Ross where they can catch a boat to Canada and hopefully begin life anew.

     This is Caroline Pignat’s second young adult novel and readers are promised a sequel, Wild Geese, in 2009. Pignat’s writing is strong and detailed, bringing to life historical events in a personal and tangible way. Readers relate to Kit’s emotions as she battles problems that seem virtually insurmountable. She is to be greatly admired, even though circumstances lead her to theft and even attempted murder. Difficult times mean difficult decisions, and protagonist Kit may struggle with her conscience even as she does what must be done to save her family.

     Secondary characters in Greener Grass are also strong and vividly portrayed. Younger children, such as Kit’s siblings Jack and Annie and friend Mick, are well-developed and no doubt will have further roles in the sequel.

     The wealthy landowner and his wife are the epitome of those in the upper class who carry on as usual, oblivious to the death and misery around them. Their greed and self-centeredness are personified in their spoiled and obese beagle, Susan, who is by far better fed than any children for miles around. Readers will also love to hate Mr. Lynch who manages the estate for Fraser. Lynch may well have the best interests of his own sons in mind, but he is heavy-handed, intolerant and mean – a true villain who believes in following the law to the letter and seems to thrive on hostility.

     Perhaps the most endearing character is Old Lizzie, seemingly a sort of witch doctor. Her smoky hut and strange appearance are testimony to the witch part of her character, but she knows a great deal about herbs, berries and other natural remedies and so is called upon whenever medicine and healing are needed. Although she terrifies Kit at the beginning of the novel, she becomes one of the few people on whom Kit can trust and truly rely.

     Pignat does it all so well: plot, character, setting. She was born in Dublin and emigrated to Canada. Much of the insight in her novel comes from the experiences of her Irish mother and grandmother, to say nothing of a great deal of research in both Canada and Ireland. Not all of Greener Grass is enjoyable or easy reading by any means, for at its soul this is a dark and sad book about an era which much be one of the worst in European history for human suffering. However, regardless of the depth of the darkness, there seems to always be a small spark of light and Kit’s courage and drive are just that.

     For its good writing, its keen perception of human emotions and its incredibly accurate portrayal of An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger), this is definitely an addition to any ‘must read’ list of young adult novels. One can only hope Wild Geese will appear at bookstores early in the new year!

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French. She lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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