Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York

Written by Cynthia G. Neale
Review by Ellen Keith

Norah tells the story of Norah McCabe, an Irish immigrant living in Five Points, a notorious Manhattan slum in the mid-19th century. Norah is determined to rise above her status, and with her used clothing shop, she thinks she is well on her way. However, an accusation of theft and murder and near-rape by a corrupt police commissioner awaken her social activism. She takes a job as a reporter for the Irish-American, but her stories are watered down by the editor, fearful of stirring the pot. She finds another outlet in joining Thomas Murray, a fellow Five Pointer, in working for Irish nationalist John Mitchel. After a far too long interlude in which Norah is kidnapped and drugged in a bordello, from which an abolitionist priest attempts to free her, she escapes and joins Murray and Mitchel on a ship to Liverpool and then to Ireland, for a purpose which eludes me still. In fact, the abolitionist priest in a bordello sounds like the set-up for a joke.

Norah is a dense book that wishes to communicate the Irish immigrant’s experience in the 19th century, but the end result is just … dense. Norah herself is quixotic and flighty. Her ever-changing fancies make her difficult to grasp and to sympathize with. Is she against abolition, or does she even understand the meaning of the word? Is she an Irish nationalist or just in love with one? Her elusiveness as a character is not helped by the tortured prose. Her friend Mary has “flaming ginger hair and [an] erotic chest” – of drawers? Awkward similes abound as well: “The wooden ship was like a bitter old woman who doesn’t want life to dwell in her any longer, but she can’t quit.” I wanted to quit.