Part One opens with 12-year-old Ethan McOwen, whose Mam and Aunt Em send him to join his Da and brother Seanny in New York after the death of his older, beloved sister Aislinn in Ireland's County Fermanagh during the famine year of 1847. His traveling alone overseas under harrowing conditions earns him instant sympathy and admiration, and his clear love for books should endear him to readers even more. A decade and more after his arrival, having survived lower Manhattan's rough Five Points neighborhood, he joins his friends as a proud member of the Union’s Irish Brigade and achieves recognition as a war photographer.
Micah learns about life’s unfairness as a young man as well. Sold away from his family and shipped off to Charlottesville, his purported inheritance forgotten, he chafes under a cruel master who works him like a mule, as he says. His carpentry skills gain him local renown but are constantly exploited.
Mary Wilkens, a former runaway slave from North Carolina, is grateful to be bought by a prominent family from Richmond, where she becomes an expert seamstress and companion to their spoiled but sweet daughter. Mary's talent and elegance make her an ornament of the Kittredges’ shop, but, in keeping with the times, she knows when to adapt a field hand’s vernacular when necessary.
Marcella Arroyo joins the picture over 100 pages into the book but makes a strong impression with a suitably grand entrance. A society girl from Madrid whose family is tarnished by scandal, she is a clever card sharp who spends her winnings on the abolitionist movement, and who addresses her innermost thoughts to her late Abuela in a private notebook.
Each protagonist is distinct and, more importantly, has an interesting personality. These are people you’ll want to get to know. Their separate stories, which gradually intertwine, combine the liveliness of traditional Irish storytelling with the forthright authenticity of the slave narrative. What’s more, the text reflects the patterns of each character’s speech. It feels somewhat forced in the earliest pages, when Ethan is still a boy:
For several days in a row now, they put what remained of their hope into the soil, plantin’ the few sprouts they had, touchin’ them with the beads while reciting a rosary and askin’ the Blessed Virgin to protect this year’s crop.
After a time, however, it comes to feel natural and actually becomes more so the more pronounced it is – as is the case in the sections on Micah and Mary, with their African-American Southern dialects.
The plot rumbles along smoothly, the scope is vast – spanning 20 years from beginning to end – and the history feels vivid and clear. What’s particularly impressive, though, is how Peter Troy draws readers into his story through a masterful use of perspective. The viewpoints wrap around you and turn themselves inside out, so that without your knowing exactly how it happened, you find yourself inhabiting each character’s skin: marching with the Grand Army and firing a musket at an enemy Reb, assisting with an amputation as a battlefield nurse, and hiding your true feelings from the Kittredges while planning to run away with the handsome carpenter you love.
As you might expect, the four gradually form two couples. The novel follows them on each step of their poignant journeys toward love; after they’ve finally found some measure of liberty, it takes courage to place their future happiness in the hands of someone else.
Although filled with depictions of oppression and intense hardship and set partly during wartime, the overarching tone is persistently hopeful; the protagonists are good, honest people who are always striving for something more. Their personal stories are spread out against a wide canvas showcasing mid-19th century society and politics. Inspirational fiction in the best sense of the term, this fulfilling saga that celebrates the bonds between diverse people is an excellent choice for fans of classic American stories.
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was published in trade paperback by Anchor in November 2012 ($15.95/C$18.95, 512pp). The hardcover is also available (Doubleday, $26.95/C$32.00, 386pp).