Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.
In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).
Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.
Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.
This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.
Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.
Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.
I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.
A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.