When the "potato famine" of 1847 was over, two million residents of Ireland had died agonizing deaths, most of them from starvation. The events which led to the famine, the people who were directly affected by it, and the steps taken to ameliorate or escape it are the subjects of Joseph O’Connor’s intense and heartfelt novel, Star of the Sea, named for the British-owned "famine ship" which is the center of the action here.
O’Connor presents four main characters who recall the pivotal experiences of their lives which lead them to make this fateful, 27-day journey. The reader becomes emotionally involved with their stories, acquiring a broad background in Irish social history--and its tragedies--in the process. Thomas David Nelson Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, is the ninth generation of his Protestant family to govern Kingscourt, with hundreds of workers dependent upon him. Now bankrupt, he and his family are going to America, first-class. Their nanny, Mary Duane, has recently joined the family, and her stories of her past loves, her marriage, and her loss of her own children illuminate the bleak prospects available to this warm and intelligent, but desperately poor, woman.
G. Grantley Dixon is a caricature of the liberal American do-gooder, whose reports about the plight of the Irish poor are influenced by his own socialism and by the reform-minded traditions of his family. Self-centered in his attitudes and limited in his social graces, he is detested by Merridith. Pius Mulvey is a mysterious ex-convict who comes from the same town as Merridith and Mary Duane, directly connected to both of them. One of over 400 passengers who have paid $8 per person for passage, he is crammed into the fetid and dangerous quarters known as "steerage," expected to stay alive on one quart of water a day and half a pound of hardtack.
O’Connor pulls out all the stops here in this big, broad melodrama, but an honesty of emotion and a fidelity to the facts here saves the novel from bathos and gives the reader cause for thought. Moments of both ineffable sadness and high drama arise, and O’Connor’s imagery, especially his sense imagery, is arresting. Occasionally, his compression of time, for the sake of story, leads to anachronisms--several mentions of evolution, with parallels between monkeys and Irishmen, ignore the fact that Darwin’s Evolution of the Species was not published until twelve years after this famine. Still, O’Connor presents a compelling story with many unforgettable details of Irish history. The ending is preachy, but the author does provide a follow-up on the characters after their arrival in America. The fact that at least one character becomes a politician (later accused of misappropriation of funds) will surprise no one accustomed to politics. Mary Whipple