Part I of the novel opens in 1846. The protagonist and narrator, Margaret Meehan, begins her tale in Kilvarna, County Clare, Ireland. For sixteen-year-old Margaret, everything about her life is promising: a fine-looking fiancé, Tom Riordan; her family’s farm prospering; a loving friend and confidant, Kitty Dooley; and an apprenticeship to the master keener, Nuala Lynch. Then disaster strikes with the return of the potato blight.
With their livelihood gone, Margaret’s family and neighbors are also decimated. Some leave for cities while others become wandering beggars. Some survive by toiling for the public release works under the supervision of the sadist Edward Speke, and some, like Tom Riordan, become rebels. Everyone close to Margaret is caught in the spiraling tragedy. Their future is bleak, so Margaret and Tom wed and flee to America, settling in Troy, New York. There they begin a family and a new life. She works in the garment industry and Tom works in the steel mills. Over the next half-century, with hard work, they prosper.
Rich in historical detail, Maura Shaw’s novel vividly contrasts the hardship and oppression of Ireland with the abundant but challenging opportunities in nineteenth-century America. This is an exceptionally rewarding historical novel.