The Walking People, by Mary Beth Keane, was a wonderfully lucky random find on the shelf at the library. One day the title just caught my eye as I walked down the aisle. I pulled it off the shelf and was still intrigued after reading the inside flap. Although I did not actually check it out that day, I took note of it and a few weeks later finally decided to give it a try. Reading random books I have never heard of is definitely hit or miss, but this one was a hit!
The storyline follows Irish immigrants to the United States from their childhood in Ireland in the 1950s all the way up to 2007. The main character, Greta, leaves her mother behind in Ireland when she takes a ship to New York as a teenager with her sister and a boy named Michael. Although she was awkward as a girl, in New York she grows into adulthood and creates a life for herself, working and raising a family. Although she continues to think of Ireland as “home”, she at the same time harbors a secret that keeps her from maintaining contact with her family. Years later, she still fears losing everything she has gained when her children contrive to bring the two worlds together.
My description of the plotline may not sound like much, but the beauty of this book is in the details. The snapshots into each time period – 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 2007s – made me feel as if I was really in that time and place. I felt as if I went on the immigrant journey myself along with Greta and Michael. The contrast between their lives in rural Ireland in the 1950s and New York City in the 1970s was immense and expertly conveyed. The writing is crisp and engaging and I thought the use of multiple third person voices was effective in giving the whole picture of these people’s lives. I also liked the use of time: mostly the story is linear, but it starts with a prologue set in 2007, and at the start of each section (each set in a different year) flashbacks are used effectively to convey what happened during the missing years. Another detail that I really appreciated is the fact that all of the characters had flaws. They were mostly all likeable, but neither were they perfect. In short, they seemed human.
The Walking People is one of those books where I just sat and read and didn’t notice time passing. I lived in the world of the characters while I was reading (and a bit after I finished it as well). Really, what higher praise can I give a book?