Something Bigger Sheila Killian Caritas Press €14.35
Based on a fascinating family story, Something Bigger by Sheila Killian highlights significant moments of Irish history as well as exposing shameful episodes of racist hatred in the American Deep South in the early years of the 20th century.
In 1904, aged just 14, Great Aunt Marcella followed her brother, Fr Jimmy Coyne, from their rural hometown of Drum, Roscommon, out to Birmingham, Alabama, then a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity and anti-Catholic sentiment, “a city founded on coal and steel, on ambition and ruthless hope”.
Sixty years later she returned to live with Sheila, full of stories about those momentous years including the shooting dead of her human-rights activist brother Jimmy by KKK members.
Killian takes the bones of these stories and moulds them into something bigger, a vibrant literary reimagining of the lives of these people, their families back home in Ireland and their new community in Alabama.
The evocation of small town family life in Ireland is so realistic: all the brothers emigrating to find work, few opportunities for the girls bar marriage to a local farmer with a bit of land.
Marcella’s mother basks in the reflected glory of having a son a priest in America, and busies herself for his impending visit.
When Jimmy suggests Marcella come to America to finish her education she is excited at the prospect of freedom and opportunity but torn by her growing friendship with Tommy Banahan, a local lad of limited means.
Her best friend Mary Catherine puts her straight. “What will you do if you don’t go? Are you going to marry that Banahan lad and move in with his drunken mother? Come on. You can do better than that.”
And with that she departs, leaving everything she has known behind.
But life in Alabama is far from idyllic and Killian successfully conveys the unsettling aura of menace that permeates their daily lives. Jimmy is outspoken in his support for people of colour, championing their human rights to the fury of local Baptist ministers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
When Marcella makes friends with a minister’s daughter, she sets in train the terrible events of 1921, which culminate in huge personal tragedy.
Through a combination of letters home, newspaper reports and lyrical narration, Killian brings to life this family saga of identity and belonging, of immigration and bigotry.
She highlights the danger of spreading rumours and mindless mob-rule, themes as relevant today as back then.
An engaging story written in gorgeous, elegant prose.