September 24, 2012

A Sea of Sorrows: The Typhus Epidemic Diary of Johanna Leary, Ireland to Canada East, 1847

by Norah McClintock
Scholastic Canada
175 pp.
Ages 9-12
September 2012

Norah McClintock, three-time Arthur Ellis award-winning author for Best Juvenile Crime Book, surprising treats readers with this first foray into historical fiction.  However, this should not be surprising as Norah McClintock graduated with a degree in history from McGill University and shows great skill in bringing the past in Dear Canada's newest title, A Sea of Sorrows, to reside comfortably amongst her more contemporary award-winning volumes.

A Sea of Sorrow follows the story of thirteen-year-old Johanna Leary and her family from the blight-ravaged potato fields of Ireland to Canada in 1847.  Sorrows will plague the Learys, Ma, Da, fourteen-year-old Michael, Johanna and baby Patrick, each step and nautical mile of their journey from the hunger and poverty of their homeland to the farm of Da's brother, Liam, in the New World.  From their long walk to Dublin to catch a steamer for Liverpool and then boarding the sailing ship for Canada, the journey is arduous, sorrowful and forlorn.

Although never recognized at the time, the ships carrying the Learys and other families became known as coffin ships for the rabid spread of cholera and typhus that claimed the lives of young and old alike.  By the time the ship comes into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, Johanna's family has lost little Patrick, and Connor Keenan, a young man who'd disguised himself as a girl to evade arrest for threatening and robbing some landlords, has lost his father, sister Colleen, and brother Kevin.  But arriving in Canada does not lead to landing and disembarking in Canada, as the countless line of ships anchored in the harbour indicate.  Those who are deemed ill, including Ma and Mrs. Keenan, are sent to the hospital on Grosse Isle.  The others must remain on the ship in quarantine to contain the spread of the disease.  Not surprising that during their days in quarantine, without fresh food or water, and waiting for medical inspection, even more people fall ill.

Following ten days in quarantine, only Da, Michael and Johanna with Connor and his little brother Daniel, are sent by steamer to Montreal. Again, the sorrows of separation and loss overtake the joys of officially arriving in Canada, as Da, who is ill, is taken away to the immigrant sheds, and Johanna and Daniel are taken with all the girls and youngest boys to an orphanage to be cared for by nuns.

And so, for the Learys, their new life in Canada alongside Uncle Liam has dissolved with each death and separation, just as it did for so many who travelled from Ireland at that time.  The mass exodus contributed to the horrific conditions on board the ships, which in turn led to illness and death.  Unfairly, the Irish immigrants were seen as bringing disease with them and became a spectacle and deemed worthy of prejudice and discrimination from the Canadians.  Even their starvation was twisted to be indicative of laziness by some.

A Sea of Sorrows is not a happy story, although Norah McClintock's epilogue offers some tidbits of happiness for some characters. But, it is a dramatic glimpse into the ghastly situations many Irish immigrants experienced circa 1847, leaving one horrific situation of poverty, starvation and discrimination for another that offered a glimmer of hope but within similar circumstances.  And Norah McClintock never sugar-coats Johanna's accounts, just as the girl would not have been able to do so; there was no sweetness to spare for her tale.  As rotten as the potatoes they fled, many of the Learys' lives festered along with numerous of their countrymen, with only the occasional murphy or Leary able to survive, albeit scarred.

A powerful telling of a historic tragedy. 

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