While I’ve read a host of books about early 1900s immigration, The Walking People is a story about a different generation of immigrants — the Irish who came to America in the early ’60s. Greta’s family lives in a tiny, nearly abandoned town in Western Ireland, near the sea and not much else. Life during Greta’s childhood is much the same way it had been for hundreds of years: they were warmed by a turf fire and lit by candles as they ate. “Tinkers,” or “Traveling People,” walked the highways and made a living by doing odd jobs, staying in camps along the way. Greta’s early interactions with these Traveling People reverberate and result in relationships that last her lifetime.
The Walking People is about, first and foremost, family: what we do for them and what we inadvertently do to them — and not just the children we raise, but the family we were raised by. Greta’s very close relationship with her mother and sister, and how that relationship changes, influences so much of the way she lives her life. I was sometimes frustrated by the choices she made, while at the same time I was sympathetic to why she made those choices. She’s an interesting character, this Greta, naive and yet wise, thoughtful and stubborn; Mary Beth Keane does an excellent job of rounding out all her characters. I think I liked reading about the family Greta grew up in more than I liked reading about the family she raised, but maybe that’s because I just liked reading about life in Ireland more.
One unique thing about this novel that I appreciated was its use of time periods. Typically, I am annoyed when we start at the end of a story and then move backwards, because I feel like it rips the footing out from under the plot to already know how the story ends. But somehow, in The Walking People, this device just completely intrigued me. Even though I knew that certain people would end up being together, I was thrilled to discover how it all happened. So three cheers for that.
I think that for a debut novel, The Walking People is pretty darn amazing, even if the end left me hanging somewhat. If you can overlook the sometimes harsh language, I think you’ll appreciate this story that takes you from one side of the Atlantic to the other, down beneath the streets of New York City and back, and the beautiful language leaves you pining for an Irish home that you never even had.
Rated: High, for language, both mild, moderate and strong throughout. The strong language comes primarily from one or two characters — beyond that, there is one mildly sensual scene.