Monday, August 7, 2017

Book Review: Our Own Kind

Title: Our Own Kind

Author: Edward McSorley

Date: 1946

Publisher: Harper & Brothers

ISBN: none

Length: 304 pages

Quote: “With his head propped on his elbow Willie watched his grandfather.”

The Amazon review breathlessly notes this as a "lovely history book." It is indeed a delightful historical novel, but it's not a "history book" in the sense of a nonfiction study, as the subtitle "The Irish-Americans" might suggest. This is a story, narrated in the Realist manner, mostly about a little Irish-American boy's bond with his grandfather. It's Realism, though, not Socialist Realism; its ending is a believable mix of sad and happy, regrettable and admirable.

Considerably less raw than Angela's Ashes, it still contains a mix of ugly and pretty memories. In addition to his parents and grandparents Willie lives with a rather dreadful great-aunt, the grandmother's sister, who once tried to seduce the grandfather. When Willie and friends break into a store, they're threatened with being “put away.” A passing tramp tries to rape Willie. A Jewish family live in the neighborhood; Willie copies his schoolmates and harasses them until his elders teach him better manners. Nobody's very polite about Black people, either, although Willie's family are sincere Christians who don't hate or persecute anybody—this was the historical period when “race” silliness and White Supremacy were at their all-time peak.

Whether his grandfather is teaching Willie to recite the last speech of Robert Emmett, taking Willie to the St. Patrick's Day parade, cheering for Willie while a classmate wins the medal, or mourning for a pet dog, the grandfather remains the head of the family and the hero of Willie's life. He's not a Perfect Patriarch, but he's a good one.

The story is told like a fictionalized memoir, whether McSorley's own or someone else's. I suspect it began as one. The characters act the way real Irish-Americans act, and talk the way we talk—seldom concealing their emotions, seldom taking their emotions too seriously, occasionally letting out a rude word, rarely preaching. They're aware of their private parts (in one scene a sick patient spills liniment on his) but not obsessed with them. They're forthright about which adults' relationships are and aren't sexual, but they don't burden people with further details. They laugh, cry, yell, sing, pray, and then get on with their lives. Protestant though “my own kind” of Irish-Americans were and remain, I did feel, while reading this novel, that I was among “my own kind.”

If you enjoy the first 275 pages of Our Own Kind where the grandfather is active as patriarch (and you will), you won't be entirely happy about the ending. How do memoirs about children's grandparents, told after the children are full-grown, usually end? This one's no exception. Does the grandfather's legacy to Willie make it a good ending after all? Book clubs probably had a good time debating that question. I can imagine some readers crying at the end of this book and saying “But these are the good kind of tears.”

Snowflakes, on the other hand, won't enjoy an authentic story of the 1910s. Even people of good will use the rude words for various ethnic groups. Willie gets slapped, shaken, and choked by the collar when he behaves badly. There's no hint that anyone imagined any other homosexual man being less loathsome than the one who attacks Willie. Several people die, many from tuberculosis. A teenager sacrificing high school to go to work is perceived as doing a fine, generous thing. If you grew up with grandparents Willie's age and learned to tolerate the way they talked, you'll enjoy Our Own Kind, but for some people it may be a little too real.

For me, this was one of the books a friend dumped on me. She'd bought them for their anticipated resale value and I've been trying to post as much about them as possible, to sell them quickly, because most of them did at least reach me in good condition...Most of her picks do not, apart from being vintage books in good condition, have especially high resale value. Amazon lists them above the penny-a-book range, but not in the serious-collectors-only range. I will say, though, that of the two copies my friend had acquired, I've already sold one. The local market for sweet oldfashioned stories about Irish-Americans is strong. Online, copies will cost $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment, and you could fit four books of this size into one $5 package. This web site encourages you to search for the label "A FAIR TRADE BOOK," which appears at the end of posts about books by living authors, and mix some of those into your package along with Our Own Kind.