Thursday, April 28, 2011

"The Outside Boy" takes you on a poetic journey through the Ireland of yore

I was up until 3 a.m. one night this week finishing Jeanine Cummins' novel, "The Outside Boy"(2010, New American Library, Paperback, 360 pp., $15). In my foggy, still a bit sleep-deprived state I will tell you that I don't pass on glorious sleep to read just any old book.

I was smitten with Cummins' writing the moment I heard the petite bedimpled brunette speak at a reading in a private Philadelphia home last month (You'll find my blog about that fun day here).

Cummins, who was at the time recovering from losing her voice due to an illness, spoke softly as she recited a portion of "The Outside Boy" - the tale of an Irish travelling lad set in the late 1950s. She described a horse's breech birth seen through the eyes of a boy, and infused those few pages with suspense, gory details, heart and hope. The 20-or-so folks at the reading hushed and hung on every word.

Cummins, a New Yorker who is married to an Irishman and has spent a bit of time in Ireland, used an Irish country accent of sorts to give life to the voice of her protagonist, 11-year-old Christy. She said she couldn't write the book in the true traveller dialect, as that would render it unreadable. So she chose kind of a middle ground. And it's that gorgeous and charming country Irish language Cummins weaves that hooks you.

Cummins' language choices struck me as poetic and lush. Here young but wise-for-his-years Christy describes a dusk scene: "There was a licking wind, and I smelled a shower twisting up behind it, but the cruel damp was lessened by the fire and the music. The night and the weather was pushed back from the edges of camp just by the force of my family."

Christy is Pavee, aka traveller or gypsy - part of a family of nomads who wander the Irish countryside looking for work and selling their wares. They are known for fashioning items such as buckets out of tin, and are sometimes called the derogatory term "tinkers." But their meager yet free way of life is all Christy knows.

In Christy's words: "That was the way, with Pavees - to split off into tidier groups for travelling. Because, like Dad said, if you couldn't count out your camp on your two hands, there was too many of you in it. There was only so much work, so much food to go around, and the bigger camps was hungrier camps."

He experiences big changes during the weeks this novel encompasses. Christy's life has heretofore been defined by the fact that his mother died in childbirth. He feels he killed her, and the sadness of being a motherless boy - someone who doesn't fully understand where he comes from - follows Christy as he travels from town to town with his dad, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins.

With his grandfather's death, Christy finds some clues that help him to unravel a bit of the mystery surrounding his birth. (Christ's father is mum on the subject). In his Grandda's wagon, Christy finds an old newspaper clipping that contains a photo of his mother, Nora, whom he has never laid eyes on. In the photo, the beautiful woman who appears not to be a traveller, is holding a baby. Christy enlists the help of a kindly bookshop owner to help investigate the source of the article, unbeknownst to his family.

While this is going on, the Hurley family is camped in a town for a longer stretch than usual as Christy and his cousin Martin study for their First Communions in the Catholic Church. The travellers may be migrants, but they are devoted to Catholic traditions and attend Mass regularly. They stop for the whole of Lent while Christy and Martin study with the townchildren.

Christy gets his first taste of formal school, and of friendships among the buffers (non-travelling folks). He even develops a crush on a local girl. But the mystery - his mystery - is always weighing on him.

With great tenderness Cummins relates Christy's insecurities (such as his horror at not being able to provide payment to the school in the form of a lump of "turf," or peat that's used for fuel to heat the school, dropped in a barrel - he and his cousin find a way around that), of being put in a class of children three years younger, and his infatuation with the well-off and kindly young Amy.

He makes himself sick over a revelation a traveller's not supposed to have. "I like it here," he admits to his Granny one day. ... "And the words felt monumental, like a dam finally giving burst to an itchy, tormenting leak."

The coming-of-age tale is not without drama, especially toward the end of the story - which, I warn you, may cause you to lose a little sleep. It's the kind of drama that will keep you burning the midnight oil just to find out WHAT HAPPENS. As Christy tries to work out where he came from, parts of his life that he believed to be true start to crumble. In the end, he seems far wiser than his 11 years.

It's touching story, told with loving language and meticulous research of the Pavee traditions. Worth the time and the under-eye circles!

"The Outside Boy" is not the first work published by Cummins. She worked in publishing sales for 10 years before publishing a memoir, "A Rip in Heaven," about her brother's survival of the rape and murder of two of her cousins, in 2004.

The mom of two daughters, pictured here in a publicity photo, was born in Spain and raised in the Washington, D.C., area. She lives with her family in New York City and is a full-time writer.

To learn more about Cummins and her books, visit her website.

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