They stand in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse that shapes its gloom over a barren garden, a feeling of emptiness like presence. She wonders why an elm has had its bark stripped to head height and sees another just like it. Colly says, this was a house of tree eaters, I told you this was going on.
Grace, a story of the famine as if you were, there tells the story of Grace’s survival, read for the Roman De Rochefort. This book covers several themes, why was there a famine, who starved and why, and what are people capable of when faced with hunger. As the story begins, Grace, a young, girl of twelve, is living with her subsistence farming mother and siblings in a hut in The Black Mountains in Donegal. The potato harvest has failed and Grace doesn’t fully grasp what is to come as the landlord’s rent collector will want a rent that cannot be payed. Her mother Sarah with her daughter’s survival in mind, and a mouth less to feed at home, dresses her as a boy and sends her to do whatever work a friend of her ex-husband can find for her:
Sarah…produces cloth to bind Grace’s chest, stops and says, you’ve no need of it. Hands her a man’s shirt that swallows her. It smells like rocks pulled from a river. She holds the breeches in front of her and studies them. The fawn fabric is patched tan at the knees. She thinks, they look like a dog has had them for slumber. From whom did they come? Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself—such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks. The breeches go past her ankles. Sarah rolls the ends up, stands behind her and loops the waist with string. A jacket that stinks of rained-on moss. A frieze coat ravelly about the neck and yawning at the elbow. I might as well be wearing jute. Sarah whispers. Here. Put on your boots. And try this cap. Your brother’s cap is too small for you. Pull it lower. Plenty of boys go about dressed in a father’s old clothing. Grace stands staring past the door at the world held starless by a flat dark. Leg-skin strange in these breeches and the cold whittling her head. Sarah hands her a candle and the light falls from her mother’s face so that it seems she is not herself, stands masked to her own daughter. She fusses over Grace, puts a satchel over her shoulder, rolls up the sleeves of the jacket. Then she looks towards the sleeping children, holds Grace with a long look, and whispers. Get to the town and don’t dally on the mountain road. Ask for Dinny Doherty and tell him you are your brother. He has always been kind to us.
As Grace leaves in the quiet of early morning, to avoid the rent collector, her younger brother, Colly, runs after her and whilst fishing with his hands falls in the river and drowns. As she then moves on from situation to situation, Colly’s voice follows with her as a counterpoint to her own survival decisions, telling her about the characters of the people she meets and helping her to survive.
At one job, Grace finds an abandoned hut where she tries to create a normality of life but is saved from a man, that has recognised her as a girl and followed her to her hut, by Bart, a small one armed man from the same work group who has learned to survive by his skill with knives. Grace and Bart then take to the road:
Of a sudden she knows what he is and what he is not. He turns without word and starts for the path without her. She stares at the path and stares at the dying man, another body left lying about and you’ll be the one who has to take care of it and maybe you’d be safer with this knife fighter. Wait! she shouts. She goes into the cabin and bundles her blanket and belongings. When she steps out of the house the dead man has gone. She says, what did you do with him? He says, I did nothing with him. So where is he gone? He got up and ran off. I thought he was dying.
The themes of who and why are examined as two separate worlds seem to coexist as Grace and Bart walk south along the roads, of the rich landowners in their protected estates who grow varied cash crops and corn, and of the poor, for whom potatoes is the only crop capable of producing enough calories to survive on their small plots, whose crops have failed, like Grace taken to the roads in search of food, work or charity:
Every flour cart on the road has been accompanied by soldiers. And in these great vales of Tipperary, the farming estates are sometimes as big as a town. They meet villages where the gardens are tended, the houses fashioned and slated. The great fields of corn giving to the world their color. How they crane their necks towards the flashing scythes. And yet there are the townlands you must go through with shut eyes, where grass grows over the doorways, where the fields learn color only from the sun. The have-it-alls and the have-nothings, Bart says. I give it a year before the country splits apart.
As winter turns to spring, somehow Bart and Grace have survived when so many about them have died, often in ditches at the sides of the roads as the people have become too weak to fight or resist:
They have tunneled through dark into this town called Ennis. Scavengers on the streets like stunned crows. The town watched over by buildings that might be flour mills. She thinks she will always remember the look of the fever hospital, the fright-shapes in the dark by the gates waiting to get in. Bart stops and leans out of breath against a wall. They find a place to sleep on the edge of town, some old forge, she thinks, though it might have been a baker’s once. There are other rough sleepers who speak in coughs.
Grace, Bart and a friend of Bart’s, McNutt, take to robbing the speeding coaches of the rich rushing up and down the same roads where the poor are dying in the ditches, or some of the less well protected houses, to survive whilst living in the hills. And then one day, thirteen long months from the start of the ordeal it happens, harvest comes and the potatoes are once again rotten, another year like the last is ahead of them, except that people are now already starving. Huts, farms and whole villages are now empty with people often lying dead in their huts with no one left to discover them, illustrated by the opening quote.
Slowly now the strong and the survivors weaken and die, including Bart and McNutt, and progressively Colly entirely takes over Grace as the survival instinct causes her to do the unimaginable:
that’s another dead-cart gone past and see what is on it—you will be on it soon no I will not yes you will—and do you know why those men are digging they are digging at meat that grows in the ground—you are not dead yet—yes you are—no you are not—soon unless you do something you must—hee! Tell no one—tell no one who is to know, wait until night like those others you saw in the dark and now it is dark and crawl so yes I will—not crawling walking crawling careful careful in case somebody sees—hee!—shovel hands—hee!—shoveling hands—who is that laughing sounds like Grace—Grace is dead—no she is not she is waiting in the house—it is a dog, a dog laughing—the dog is here for the meat also—how to bring this meat to Grace—it is not meat—it is meat—meat does not grow in the ground—is meat—isn’t—who will know anyhow—you won’t even know if you don’t think about it—dark and nobody is watching—to live is to die and to die is to live who said that—what silliness. Digging fingers meet the meat that lies under cloth—rip cloth—meat on the bone is meat in your hand will taste of mud and dead will it not and so what—the body won’t know what it’s eating, the body won’t care—nobody will know—
Grace is however found in the bottom of a pit of dead bodies and saved but no longer speaks. This is a harrowing story of deprivation, with whole villages of the poorer people being wiped from the map.
First Published in English as “Grace” in 2017 by Little, Brown and company.