Review: So Far From Home

So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, An Irish Mill Girl, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847 (Dear America Series)So Far From Home
by Barry Denenberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So Far from Home (Massachusetts) / 0-590-92667-5

"So Far From Home" takes us through the life of young Mary, an Irish immigrant to America. She hopes to find work in a mill and send her wages home to her family, to feed them through the famine and - perhaps - one day bring them to America to live with Mary again, forever.

The plot is compelling, but flaws show through here. For one, the usual Dear America diary format has been jettisoned and the diary segments have been broken into "chapters" which are jarring and removes the reader from the "diarist" narrative. For another, the writing is littered with "tis" and "thee" as much as possible, and the result is very difficult to read. Many of Mary's sentences lack proper grammatical structure, making reading cumbersome. Maybe this was an attempt at realism, but the other Dear America books manage perfectly well without going this route, so I don't know why the editors didn't tighten up the narrative a bit. The result is chunky, and I can't imagine that most children will bother to wade through to the end.

In almost all the Dear America books, the authors introduce plot lines tangential to the "main" narrative which are brought to some kind of conclusion before the diary author 'runs out of paper' or 'decides to start a new diary to mark this new life' or whatever other conceit is used to tie up the narrative to a conclusion. Here, however, several plot lines are introduced that simply don't resolve themselves or go anywhere. The side-plot where Mary struggles with whether or not to tell the blind-orphan girl about the death of her parents is forgotten without a conclusion. The side-plot where Mary's sister is hinting that she will be wed soon is never mentioned again.

The ending itself is one big disappointment: Mary learns that a friend has been falsely imprisoned in Boston, so she packs up to go to his rescue, the end. We have to read the flimsy two-page epilogue to find out what happens to Mary and her friend, and the final product is just very bad storytelling. The epilogue itself is practically insulting, as (again, differing from all other Dear America books) it has the narrator dead from disease within two years of the book's ending, apparently because the author didn't want to make up a proper "rest of her life" story for his young mill worker.

Fundamentally, the real problem with this book is that it doesn't know what story it wants to tell. Problems in the factories are mentioned, reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle", but no explanations are offered other than the fact that the American workers blame the immigrant Irish for providing a constant influx of cheap labor. Beyond that, there is nothing - almost no mention of unions, strikes, regulation, anything. This is disappointing, as other Dear America books managed to tackle the issue in far more depth, so why couldn't "So Far From Home"?

Some of the narrative seems to be written by someone who has issues with women in general, and this is seen especially clearly in the character of Mary's sister Kate. Kate is selfish, vain, and proud, working as a lady's maid for an upper-class family and choosing 'selfishly' to never send any of her wages to her family back in Ireland. This could have been a good opportunity to discuss why so many young women felt they had to turn their backs on their families in order to survive (point of fact, it was very difficult to get a good husband without some kind of dowry or savings, and those official weddings didn't pay for themselves), but this chance is missed because we never see Kate as anything more than a shrew.

I really don't recommend this book. It is not a bad book, and there is a decent amount of history here, but the narrative style is so bad that there's just no real reason to suffer through this book when there are much better out there.

~ Ana Mardoll

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