Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Map of Ireland: A Novel

Map of Ireland by Stephanie Grant
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's review
Jul 27, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: review-copy, historical-fiction, 2009, lgbt
Read in August, 2009

Set during the desegregation of Boston's public schools, when buses sent white kids to "black" schools and black kids to "white" schools, Map of Ireland is the story of an Irish-American living in the very Irish neighbourhood of South Boston, who loves to set fires and whose colouring of red hair, white skin and freckles is called a "map of Ireland".

Ann Ahern is sixteen. It's 1974 and she observes with little opinion the white Catholic mothers throwing stones at buses of black children. She's more concerned with her own blossoming sexuality - she's only interested in girls - and the black exchange teacher at school, Mademoiselle Eugénie, who teaches French. She's from a family of five; her father has been gone for years. Life isn't easy, but above all Ann's filled with a yearning, as well as unsettled confusion.

When Mademoiselle Eugénie's car is set on fire by some white boys and she disappears from school life, Ann is worried. But when one of the two black girls on her basketball team, Rochelle, offers Ann the chance to see the French teacher she's so infatuated with, she leaps at the chance - and at the adventure and discovery that comes with it.

While it's a short novel at less than 200 pages, it reads long because it has so much to say - even though, upon reflection, not all that much really happens. It's Ann's commentary - on life, on white-black relations, on this moment in history that she barely understands, on her own urges and desires - that propels the novel. Perhaps it's Ann's incredibly real voice, but you feel, while reading this, that you've been swept back in time. It's gritty, it's sympathetic, and it's the closest you might be able to come, if you weren't around in the 70s or in America, to knowing what it must have been like during desegregation, especially how people thought at the time. The book doesn't pass judgement - it doesn't need to - but it doesn't shy away from "telling it like it is" (or was), as they say.

Ann is a great character - as one reviewer said (I like this quote): "Ann Ahern wants, literally, to climb out of her own skin, to be part of something larger than herself. This urgency fuels the novel and makes her unforgettable - unknowable, but unforgettable." (Los Angeles Times) I could never have said it as well as that, but it captures it perfectly.

It's harder to capture the style, Ann's voice, how she injects herself into every word. It's unpretentiously written, and finely crafted. I want to share a glimpse of it, so I've randomly picked a paragraph to quote:
"The Black hallway ran the length of the house. Beyond the living room, were two doors. I figured, maybe, the Black bedrooms. I crept along. I felt inexplicably sad. In ninth grade, when I got in trouble for tonguing Laura Miskinis in the ear, the headmaster had called me a pervert. I knew then, he had the wrong word. Perverse means twisted. What I'd done was simple, straightforward: a tongue, an ear, a current of feeling. What I was doing now, in Mademoiselle Eugénie's house, was perverse. Sneaking around. A lone White in a Black house. Trespassing."

If you're interested in black history - especially African-American history - then Map of Ireland should definitely be on your reading list. This is also a great work of lesbian fiction, and even though it's not marketed as YA it would be a great teen read as well.
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