Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"The Walking People"

Mary Beth Keane's short fiction has appeared in various newspapers and journals including the Chicago Tribune, The Antioch Review, The Baltimore Review, New York Stories, and The Recorder.

She applied the “Page 69 Test” to The Walking People, her first novel, and reported the following:
Page 69 of The Walking People is actually a half page – the final paragraphs of Part I, and the moment that changes the course of these characters’ lives. Part I is set in the coastal village of Ballyroan, County Galway, Ireland in the year 1957. The Cahill family has been poaching salmon from the river that cuts through their field and selling the cured salmon to families in the nearest town. In the second half of Part I the Cahills learn that the man who owns the river rights has hired men from another part of the country to patrol the riverbank more aggressively. Ignoring the warnings, Big Tom Cahill goes out with his net at midnight with his three sons to help him and ends up dying during the confrontation that ensues. Page 69 describes what exactly happened to him in the confusion of the night. I choose to move the point-of-view forward in time so that we hear from Greta of the distant future and know that there IS a future for Greta, a future where she will be reflecting on all these events of her past. Because it is one of the most inherently sad scenes in the story, I wanted to be as frank and straightforward as possible.

It was a funny thing, in a way, that with all the shotguns that had been present that night – Jack’s, Padraic’s, and those of the two strangers, Big Tom had drowned in his own river. Grazed by a shot meant only to scare him, he stumbled and fell. The rush of the water carried him for about thirty feet, until his head became wedged between two rocks. Unaware that their father was in trouble, one of the boys – which one was a secret they decided not to tell – fired back at the strangers and missed, instead finding the chest of Mr. Grady, who was observing the capture of the poachers from a few yards away. In the spot where Big Tom died, the water was two feet deep.

The boys carried him home, laid him on his bed, pulled off his shirt, loosened his belt, touched and retouched his face with the backs of their hands. And this Greta felt sure she remembered firsthand: when they pulled off his boots the river poured out and ran to every corner of the room.

This short scene is emblematic of the Cahill family’s story from this point forward. Big Tom, unrepentant salmon poacher, drowns in the place he loved most. With his death, the Cahill family’s reliance on the river for survival must come to an end, and like so many who left Ballyroan before them they are eventually forced to face the fact that they cannot all survive in the home they’ve known for generations. The spectre of emigration, which has visited every other home in Ballyroan, finds a way into the Cahill home because of Big Tom’s death.
Read an excerpt from The Walking People, and learn more about the book and author at Mary Beth Keane's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue