I wouldn’t say this book is bad, but it’s more or less unrelenting misery right from the word go.
A Sea of Sorrows: The Typhus Epidemic Diary of Johanna Leary, Ireland to Canada East, 1847, Norah McClintock, 2012.
I mean, look at the title, right? Anyway, Norah McClintock actually just passed away in February, and wrote a number of YA mystery/thrillers, like a sort of updated Caroline B. Cooney. (Remember those? Flight #116 Is Down gave me so many nightmares.) This is her only historical fiction book, and while like I said it isn’t bad, it’s definitely not her forte. Now, we can do a Compare-n-Contrast to the truly dreadful So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg, which has the same basic concept—poor Irish girl flees Irish potato famine, finds the New World isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—but thankfully features no weirdly written-out Irish phonetic accents and a minimal reliance on Irish folklore.
I may be the first person to read my library’s copy of this book. It’s in pristine condition.
After the very first line starting off with “fairies and pookas and banshees,” I was deeply afraid we were in for another terrible Funetik Aksent type thing, but we’re OK. Except for the fact that there’s a typo literally on the first page—“bother” for “brother.” Sigh. Anyway, Johanna is on her way to Dublin and then Liverpool and then to Canada in order to leave Ireland, where they’re all starving to death—they being her parents, her older brother Michael, and infant brother Patrick. Her father’s brother Liam is already there, somewhere in what is now Ontario, and although they haven’t heard from him in almost a year, they’re confident he’ll be happy to see them again.
As they get on board the ship, Johanna is nearly squashed by an enormous and rude girl, who turns out to have the next berth. They’re all seasick at first, but after they recover, Michael figures out that the rude girl is actually a boy—Connor Keenan—who robbed some landlords with his gang and is wanted by the police. They make it through a storm, but then the typhus sets in and begins killing people every which way. Connor’s father dies, then his sister, then his brother comes down with it, and then baby Patrick becomes ill as well. He dies very quickly, and is followed by Connor’s brother, and even though they reach the St. Lawrence without too much delay, it’s too late for most of them. They’re seen by a doctor, who sends Johanna’s and Connor’s mothers both to the hospital. And then they’re stuck on the ship and wait. And wait. And wait and wait and wait.
When they’re at last let off the ship, it’s to get onto a steamer bound for Montreal, and Johanna panics at the thought that she’ll have to leave her mother in that dreadful hospital. But it’s too late—when she finds her mother in the hospital, she’s already dead—lying on the dirt without even a sheet underneath her. So what were five are now three, sailing up the river, and as soon as they reach Montreal, Johanna’s father becomes ill as well. Then Johanna and Michael are taken to an orphanage—Connor and his only remaining brother Daniel, too—where parishioners offer to take them in. Michael finds a job, and Johanna asks the nuns to advertise for a servant’s position for her, but all the while she’s worrying what happened to her dad. She runs into a thief—literally, she bumps into him—and he drops a little silver medal that Johanna recognizes as belonging to her father. The thief helpfully mentions he was “cold as the grave.” How thoughtful.
Then, even worse—Michael leaves his employer and heads for Bytown (which is now Ottawa) to find their uncle, hearing that Johanna had died after a Joanna Leary was listed as dead in the hospital. She writes in desperation, but then takes a position with the Johnson family as a servant while she waits to hear back from him. The job, like most servant jobs, totally sucks—she washes dishes, builds fires, helps to cook, and generally does whatever she’s asked. They have three children—one of the daughters takes a liking to her and asks her for fairy stories, but the rest of the family is dreadful. They complain that the Irish have brought these fevers on themselves, and they’re lazy, and Ireland is foisting off the worst of their citizens on Canada. Mrs. Johnson is especially bad—saying they’re “lazy, ignorant creatures,” and she knows because she has Johanna, who is clearly an ignorant little louse. Johanna writes and writes about her in her diary, and then the diary is found. Johanna is dismissed and goes back to the nuns, who take her in without saying anything.
But luckily the nuns have heard from Johanna’s uncle, who has moved, but at least she knows where he is now. Johanna stays with the nuns, helping to look after the younger children and waiting to hear about Michael, for a couple of weeks before another woman asks for her. She’s an English woman, Mrs. Hall, who lives in the countryside with her husband and two small children, and even offers to put a notice in the newspaper saying that Johanna can be found at the Hall home if Michael or Liam come looking for her.
So off Johanna goes again, this time with Mrs. Hall and their neighbours, the Fentons, who have a daughter about Johanna’s age—Fanny. Mrs. Fenton is out of Mrs. Johnson’s mold, who thinks that the Irish spread disease, but Mrs. Hall is perfectly nice and has a lovely small home in the country. Johanna has her own room, and the housekeeper Mrs. Lyons is pleasant with her, although strict. She teaches Johanna to cook, and Johanna helps to look after the Halls’ two little girls, and Mrs. Hall even teaches her to knit. Fanny even befriends her, and Johanna finds herself telling Fanny all about her family and how much she misses Michael.
Mrs. Hall keeps Johanna busy, but the house is much happier than the Johnson’s, or it is until Mrs. Hall’s baby Catherine gets sick. At first they think nothing of it and continue on with their fall chores and butchering, but Catherine dies in the middle of October. The house is quiet and sombre after that, and the nuns write to Johanna that there’s been no word from her family, and it gets colder and colder and more and more depressing in that poor, sad house. Mr. Hall goes away logging and is delayed coming back, and then they hear that he’s been in an accident and hurt very badly—his leg is badly broken and arm bashed up nearly to a paste. He loses the arm, and Mrs. Hall immediately goes off to Sherbrooke to meet him, and sends for Johanna and Mrs. Lyons to bring their other daughter, Lucy.
Fanny gives her another diary as a gift before they leave, and her father takes them to Sherbrooke in his sleigh. Mr. Hall is very badly off, and Mrs. Hall tells them that because they won’t be able to return to their farm and they’re going to have to let one of them go. Johanna begs them to keep Mrs. Lyons, who has been with them longer, but Mrs. Lyons wants to go to Montreal to live with her niece, and then after some bad news from the doctor—that Mr. Hall will be badly crippled for life—the Halls decide to go back to England.
But then before anything else can happen, Johanna has a visitor—Connor, who brings her the news that Michael had found their uncle and was living on his farm, and they’re both frantic to have Johanna join them. So Mrs. Hall tells her that she’ll have to wait for the spring for the ice to break up, but she would love to have Johanna stay with her until she can go to her uncle and the Halls can go back to England.
In the epilogue, Johanna goes to her uncle’s farm and takes on the job of housekeeper, keeping in touch with Fanny and Mrs. Hall all the while. She becomes an expert seamstress and marries, and has five children, twenty-three grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren.
Rating: C+. It’s not really possibly to put “meh” into a letter grade, but I would if I could. It’s not bad, like I said several times, but there’s just almost nothing there. Johanna loses both her parents and baby brother, but there’s very little emotional impact there. Then she’s bounced around from pillar to post before settling with the Halls, but there’s almost no worry or stress over that—it’s more of a “eh, whatever happens to me, happens to me.” I guess you could read it as being so traumatized that she doesn’t have any more room for emotional reaction? But it doesn’t come across that way. And frankly, the fact that there’s such an optimistically happy ending is kind of depressing on its own—it almost comes across that all that death barely affected her. And there’s a weird note—“I have [no comfort] when I think of my dear ma and wee Patrick, who found their rest in the deep, dark sea.” Wait, Johanna saw that her mother died in a hospital shed—why would they then dump her into the ocean? This is a minor quibble, but it really comes across like the book was just poorly and hastily edited. So ultimately, while there were some enjoyable things about the book—I mean, it’s well written, it wasn’t a bad reading experience or anything—there’s just too many flaws to really recommend it. Unfortunately.