Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"The Crooked Branch"

Jeanine Cummins is the author of A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, published in 2004 and a surprise bestseller. The Outside Boy, published in 2010, was her first novel.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Crooked Branch, and reported the following:
From page 69 of The Crooked Branch:
“How would you cook a fox? I wonder,” she said to herself out loud. She did a lot of talking to herself, with Ray gone. “A stew, I suppose.” She shuddered at the thought of eating fox meat, but she’d be glad of it all the same.

She crept forward and drew her breath in. She didn’t want to startle the beast, exactly. She wanted it to know she was coming. She didn’t want it flying at her face. They were fierce animals when they were cornered.

“I wish Ray was here,” she muttered.

She drew the hayfork back then, and up to her shoulder. Her hands were trembling, but she tightened her grip and took a deep breath. She could sense a presence there, in behind the oat bushels—maybe she could hear it breathing, or smell the alien musk of its pelt. She crept forward. She wanted to catch it, and she didn’t want to catch it. She lifted the hayfork with both hands, and yelled as she stormed forward, plunging the fork down through the air.

“Faith, don’t hurt me! Merciful God!”

She twisted the fork up just in time, and its tines clattered the wall. Her hand flew up to her heart, which was beating now like mad. She shook, from the legs up.

“Mary Reilly, I nearly had you for supper!” Ginny gasped.
I love this opportunity to share a specific little moment from my novel!

The Crooked Branch is half-set during the worst of the potato famine in Ireland, in 1847. This particular scene happens near the beginning of the book, when things for Ginny and her children are becoming difficult, but are not yet desperate. Ginny’s husband Ray has left for America, and Ginny and their children have stayed behind in the west of Ireland, with just enough provisions to last them until Ray lands work in New York, and begins sending money back. In this moment, we meet a neighbor of Ginny’s, Mary Reilly, whose family circumstances are more dire than Ginny’s. Mary has come to Ginny’s home to steal food, and this is the moment when Ginny discovers her.

In some ways, this passage is representative of the book – it certainly illustrates the growing despair of the hungry people in those waning months of 1847, as the full weight of catastrophe was just beginning to show itself to Ireland. But what this selection doesn’t represent is the other half of the novel.

The alternating chapters are set in contemporary Queens, in New York City, where we follow a modern-day descendent of Ginny’s – Majella, who has just become a mother for the first time. Majella has everything she wants in life – a fulfilling career, a nice home, a wonderful husband – all the ideal conditions for bringing a child into her life. But when that longed-for baby makes her appearance, Majella is thrown for a loop. With the new baby in tow, Majella struggles to regain the satisfied balance of her former life, and in the midst of those efforts, she finds the diary of her ancestor, Ginny Doyle.

So this story really becomes two parallel narratives about the universal difficulties and awesomeness of motherhood – in circumstances both conventional and calamitous. It’s a story about how a modern mama learns to accept herself by drawing strength from the ferocious tenderness of all the mamas who came before her.
Learn more about the book and author at Jeanine Cummins's website.

--Marshal Zeringue