Book Review | Far From the Land by Thomas Rice

Title: Far From the Land: An Irish Memoir
Author: Thomas J. Rice

About the Book:

By all measures, Thomas Rice is a successful American: a graduate of an Ivy League university, a professor, and a leadership consultant. But who he is today remains intrinsically tied to his early years in 1950s Ireland. In his new book, FAR FROM THE LAND: An Irish Memoir, Rice goes back to his roots, and, in the tradition of the great Irish storytellers, shares a universal tale of hard work, perseverance, and the power of community.

In FAR FROM THE LAND, Rice describes the everyday heroics of people who faced down oppressive odds, poverty, lack of education, and minimal access to jobs or basic healthcare to raise their families with quiet dignity. And he chronicles his own early years growing up on a struggling farm as the youngest of six children. Throughout thebook, his stories are powerful, riveting, and strikingly honest.

For example, Rice recounts the remarkable life of his mother, Maggie O’Toole, delivering clear-eyed observations about her choices, her strengths, and her shortsightedness when it came to her love for her flawed husband. He details her late night rides as an eleven-year-old courier for the Irish resistance; describes her entrepreneurial success running a boarding house/speakeasy in New York’s Prohibition 1920s; and explains how she ended up back in Ireland raising six children alone after her hard-drinking husband abandoned her. In one of the most powerful stories in this memoir, Rice shares his childhood confrontation with his father, when theprodigal man returned home for a few idyllic months, destroying the visit by becoming drunk and dangerous one fateful evening.

In addition to family drama, FAR FROM THE LAND provides a compelling picture of day-to-day life in the Ireland of Rice’s childhood. This includes courtship rituals at weekend dances; education in a two room schoolhouse where an alcoholic schoolmaster taught for only an hour or so each day; pub life where locking the front door on Sundays meant that everyone used the back entrance instead; the often bloody sport of Gaelic football; and work on the farm  from the tricky task of raising turkeys for sale in theChristmas market to the local community joining forces every threshing season. Rice also explains why his childhood home was known as a rambling house describing in vivid detail how, six nights a week, neighbors within a radius of three miles would “ramble” to their kitchen to create a community of storytelling, music, dance, flirtation, card-playing, and joke-telling.

FAR FROM THE LAND also offers a poignant look at what it meant for Rice and his mother to say goodbye to their home. At the age of sixteen, Rice made the sudden decision to depart when an aging neighbor abandoned his usual light-hearted banter to tell him: if I were young agin, I’d get the hell outa here an make something o meself. Yer a bright lad this is no place for a man to spend his life. In his memoir, Rice details his shock at the pollution and unabashed anti-Irish sentiment in his temporary home of Sheffield, England, and shares how he and his mother were ultimately able to make the trip to New York, arriving in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1959.

Full of vivid detail and fascinating stories, FAR FROM THE LAND contains universal concepts that readers from all backgrounds will relate to from Rice’s search for his own identity, to the power of community, to the loving torment of a younger brother by his older sisters. Thomas Rice’s storytelling keeps readers absorbed and, in the end, wanting more.

My Review:

EVERYONE KNOWS that millions left Ireland during and after The Great Hunger of the 1840s, a gut-wrenching exodus that continued for over a hundred years. But what we tend to forget is that many stayed, and that of those who left Ireland, not all stayed away for good. Thomas J. Rice presents a soul-searing description of the fraught journey of one son of the ancient Irish sod, and of his remarkable mother, who left once as a girl, returned for nearly 20 years, then left again under the guidance of this very son. Far from the Land is a tale of one family’s struggle to go on and to acquit itself well.

Tom Sonny Rice was born in Ireland during the Second World War, the youngest of seven children and the only boy. He and his sisters (one died very young) were raised in a Roman Catholic household in rural County Carlow; indeed, there were few other types of households in that place at that time. His mammy, the former Margaret (Maggie) O’Toole, somehow provided for her children by working nearly limitless days on the land that had been in her husband’s family for centuries, Ballinvalley, a rocky and hilly browy farm in the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains. Maggie and the children had been abandoned by the family’s father, Arty Rice, the stereotypically charismatic, alcoholic, tenor-singing, blarney-slinging Irishman. They eke out a living by whatever means Maggie can create out of whole cloth.

But Maggie is no ordinary Irish peasant girl. A daughter of small farmers, she had been a prominent local freedom fighter in the Irish resistance against British rule, even serving prison time, and eventually emigrating to New York in search of the exiled IRA man Arty, the love of her young life. In America she was the stronger member of this marriage partnership, running a profitable boardinghouse through the bitter days of the American Depression. When Arty fled the immigration authorities and returned to Ireland in 1930, she stayed on alone to keep the home fires burning in New York. But duty and her religious convictions forced her own return to Ireland in 1932 when Arty, although now eligible for US resident status, insisted that Maggie instead be the one to be uprooted to reunite the family.

Sonny, born ten years after his mother’s return to her homeland, grows to young manhood in the shadow of Arty’s betrayals and the glow of Maggie’s unrequited attachment to America. He endures the usual inept school masters and viciously judgmental parish priests while learning to till the soil and become a whisperer to his beloved farm animals. Although deemed a great local success while still in his teens, Sonny is discontent at home and sets a goal of escaping, with his dear mother as his team mate, to their shared “El Dorado, the USA, where a new life of contentment and infinite promise awaits them both.

Rice calls his book An Irish Memoir, and so it is, but this memoir covers only the author’s early years as an Irish child and adolescent, not his adult years as an American social scientist and scholar. His memoir is, in fact, as much his mother’s story as it is his own, wherein he enlightens his readers as to how his mother’s life formed the foundation of his own. His intense admiration for and adoration of his mother, as well as her roles as the touchstone of his life and as his best friend, are evident from the start (and also in the book’s dedication).

The first two of the book’s three parts, Foundation Stones and Restless Winds, recount the author’s boyhood just as it happened. His narrative, often related in a dreamy stream-of-consciousness style, is an entirely personal and largely sequential account of his life of chores, mischief, dances, and family concerns. We feel the critical importance of his land and animals, and of his family’s reciprocal relationships with the neighbors, fellow farm families who, in their rural isolation, often serve more as family than do one’s blood relations. In Parts One and Two, Sonny is a smart and decent boy, devoted to his mother and his farm, who feels some stirrings of New York-flavored existential angst as he begins to come of age.

Part Three, Uprooted, changes tone and in certain revealing aspects becomes an expos, even an indictment, of the social mores, political posturings, and selfish attitudes which contributed to the difficulties endured by Rice and his countrymen. The author is documenting his escape from the Rice farm to America via England, but he also pulls out all stops as he condemns the horrific potato famines which killed or disenfranchised so many Irish. He conveys his revulsion toward industrial English city life. He provides specific, chilling evidence of the hatred of the British commoner for the immigrant Irish Paddy. He convinces us that an Irishman in Britain may pay with his life for choosing to live there, whereas the worst thing that might happen to an Irishman in America is that eventually he begins to say well all the time. Rice also recounts the stinginess of his own family members who, having fled the drudgery and poverty of the farm in Eire, cannot seem to find it in their hearts to extend a loving assist so their own mother and brother might do the same. A few kiss-and-tell passages in Part Three stand in contrast to the reserve of earlier chapters, their apparent purpose being a reinforcement of Sonny’s, now Tom’s, break from his repressive past as he embarks at last on his quest for freedom in his promised land. Part Three also treats the reader to a subtle shift in narrative from the anecdotal to the protagonist’s view as Rice employs a number of novelist’s devices to create suspense, develop characters, and deliver a true plot line not evident in the early parts.

A wonderful addition to the next edition of this book would be photographs, if available, especially of Maggie, and maps of Ballinvalley and vicinity, even if hand-drawn. We get so close to these people and places while reading this book that we long for the more complete intimacy that glimpses of their physical selves and environs would provide.

Anyone whose people ever settled in a new land in the hope of a better life for themselves and their posterity would do well to read this book. Anyone who is part of the great and reverberating Irish Diaspora well, those folks simply must read it.

A hearty Thank You! to Jane Wesman Public Relations, Inc., for the opportunity to read and review this memoir.

This review reflects the tastes, perceptions, and opinions of one person only and may be entirely wrong” from another person’s point of view. Please read the book yourself and decide.

Disclosure: I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a sample of the product for review purposes. The opinions are my own, based on my personal experience with the product.