When I was in school, in the mid-60’s, I remember having older children in my Grade 5 class, boys whose voices had changed. These children were taken out for “remedial reading” as they couldn’t read, and therefore couldn’t pass to the next grade. I know as students, myself included, we called them dumb, or retarded, a terrible label to place on someone. Today it would be known that these children had learning disabilities. You would think times had changed, but even today children with learning disabilities are called dumb or stupid by their peers. Hurtful words that damage self-image and self-esteem. So that was an important aspect of Irish Chain that I wanted to explore.
The big event, though, in Irish Chain, is the Halifax explosion of 1917. We recently saw the World Trade Centers go down, resulting in a huge loss of life, which was the equivalent of the 2500 to 3000 people who lost their lives in the Halifax explosion. Other than Barometer Rising, I know I did not study the explosion in history. I think one reason for this part of Canadian history being somewhat ignored, was the fact World War I and its enormous casualties eclipsed the Halifax disaster. The loss of lives in the explosion, the extensive and horrific injuries, those left scarred, maimed and homeless was staggering. I had just reached the explosion chapter when the attacks on the US towers took place. Like many others, the entire horror of the event kept me from work for days. But then I began to see a pattern in people’s behaviour, one I had seen in my research for the Halifax explosion. In both events people wandered about with pictures and descriptions of their loved ones, searching hospitals, emergency centres, questioning everyone. In both events, the world came together and sent help to the country in need, and in both events, quiet heros were born. The city of Boston was the first to respond to Halifax’s pleas for help, sending train cars full of medical supplies, clothes, household articles, building materials, doctors and nurses. Every year since the explosion Halifax sends a Christmas tree to the city of Boston as a thank you for their unstinting generosity.
And now to the quilt aspect. Quilting to me is a healing process, one I used when I lost both my parents with a couple years of each other. I have my Dad’s shirts – a bowling one, an apron of my grandmother’s, a blouse of my Mom’s, all waiting to be put together into a quilt. I actually just recently, found the quilt pattern I wanted to use for this special quilt. The Irish Chain quilt links my character Rose to her family, extended and immediate. I also believe that we should talk about and share stories of loved ones who have died. It says that these people lived, touched us, and that we still hold them dear. I tried to convey this through the vehicle of the quilt and Rose’s stories, and I think it especially applies to today, when we have difficulty making sense of the bad and sad experiences that happen to us.
Excerpt from Book:
Women stood on their steps, drying wet hands on aprons. Men on the way home from the night-shift gathered in small clusters to point at the smoke and discuss the collision. Legs pumping, boys raced down the street. The din was incredible. As I neared the corner, I swore I could hear Granny’s chickens clucking, all caught up in the uproar. Granny and Aunt Helen stood in a knot of women in the middle of the road, their own beaks going a mile a minute. Grandpa leaned against the milk wagon speaking to Duncan. Winnie ran over to them and I reluctantly followed.
“Well, little Winnie and Rose,” Grandpa said. “Big doings at the harbour. So many ships they can’t keep out of each other’s path it seems.”
I could tell by the way Grandpa slurred his s’s that he had not stopped to put in his teeth.
“Grandpa. Can I go down to see the fire?” Winnie asked.
“Winnie,” I scolded her. “Mam already said no.”
Winnie scowled at me.
“I’d like to go see myself,” Duncan said. “But there are people waiting for their milk delivery.” He slapped the reins against the horse’s flank. “Have a good day at school, girls.”
There was no such thing as a good day at school, I wanted to tell him, but by the time I thought to say it, he was gone.
“Winnie, we have to go.” But my feet couldn’t move as I watched a ball of yellow fire climb up inside the black smoke. I shivered and wrapped my arms about myself.
“Holy cow! Did you see that? Can’t we just go look for a minute? Everyone else is. I bet Fred and Da are watching,” Winnie begged. “Look at all those people on the roof over there. I bet they can see everything.”
I shook my head and grabbed her hand. A sense of urgency moved my feet quickly towards St. Joseph’s School and it wasn’t all fear of Sister Frances. I was definitely suffering an attack of the nerves as Granny would say. We arrived to find the school yard deserted.
“See, now we’re late. Just because you had to stop and look,” I hissed. I gave Winnie’s arm a sharp poke.
Winnie stuck out her tongue at me and ran into the school. I followed, hurrying past the statue of the Virgin Mary and the piano to the stairs. Catherine and Martha climbed in front of me. I wasn’t surprised to see Catherine- she wasn’t Catholic, so the Sisters excused her from morning prayers- but Martha was late like me. They turned at the sound of my steps.
“Why Rose. I really didn’t think you’d be come back.” Catherine said.
“I don’t know what would make you think that,” I said airily.
Martha ducked her head and looked ill at ease. Well, I thought, she should be uncomfortable. How could she be my friend one day and not the next. A fair-weather friend, that’s what she was.
“Well, you have so much trouble with your schoolwork and all, because you’re slow and your mother was here yesterday to see the principal,” Catherine went on.
She made me so mad I swear my blood boiled. I pushed past them both, head held high. “I have every intention of getting an education. I’m plan to work in a bank like my sister Mary.”
Catherine might have a war hero father in France, but she didn’t have a sister who worked in a bank.
We had reached the top of the stairs. My classroom was off to the right; Catherine’s and Martha’s to the left. We shared a cloakroom at the back of the hall. Catherine gave me a small shove as she went to hang up her coat.
“Girls.” Sister Frances stuck her head around the classroom door. Small, black eyes narrowed angrily. “You’re late and you’re interrupting morning prayers. Get your coats off immediately and get to your classrooms.”
I scurried to the cloakroom. Catherine and Martha had hung up their coats and were walking rapidly to their class, Martha ahead of Catherine. My fingers fumbled with buttons as I struggled to remove my jacket. Sister Frances had the effect of making me all thumbs. I suddenly looked up, alert. Too quiet, the air too still, then, no breath in my body. A brilliant flash. A tremendous boom. Weightless, I flew backward into the cloakroom. Windowpanes sucked inward and shattered. Sharp, silver darts fell on my head and arms. I instinctively raised my hands to protect my head. Walls collapsed and plaster rained down as the building burst apart. Then utter silence and blackness. I’d been struck deaf and blind. Someone screamed. Me? No, Catherine, I thought. On and on she shrieked, then others joined. I wished I couldn’t hear.
— Quill and Quire
— Canadian Children’s Book News
2003 Red Maple Honour Book
2003 Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction Award Honour Book
2004 Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award selection
2004 Rocky Mountain Readers’ Choice Award selection