Friday, March 9, 2012

May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy (review & giveaway)

The blurb:
Four unique voices; two parallel love stories; one sweeping novel rich in the history of nineteenth-century America.  This beautiful debut about survival, love, faith, and family primarily set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, skillfully braids together the stories of four unforgettable characters whose experiences speak to the diversity of our heritage.
Ethan McOwen is an Irish immigrant whose endurance is tested in Brooklyn and the Five Points at the height of urban destittution, he is among the first to join the famed Irish Brigade and become a celebrated war photographer. Marcella, a society girl,, defies her father to become a passionate abolitionist.  Mary and Micah are slaves in varying circumstances, who form an instant connection and embark on a tumultuous path to freedom.  The two eventually plot a clandestine escape on a cold Christmas Eve, but things will not go as planned. . .

War eventually brings these characters together, changing the course of their individual lives. Interspersed with letters, journals, and dreams, written in richly textured historical detail, including vivid and poignantly rendered scenes on the battlefield, May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is a captivating and quintessential American saga.

I loved this book - the characters were each so different and so compelling. I admit that it took me a while to get used to the sounds of the Southern and Irish voices but once I got over the first few pages and could focus on what Troy's characters were saying, I carried the book with me everywhere.

On the one hand, you might expect the book to be depressingly heavy since the lead characters go through so much - from the Great Famine in Ireland to slavery in the American South to the American Civil War and an escape to freedom.  But while Peter Troy gives us a full sense of what it must have been like - undoubtedly drawing on his background as a history teacher - he also delivers characters with such heart, hope, and integrity that we come to care about them. 

The book opens with the funeral of Ainslinn, the young sister and closest friend of twelve-year-old Ethan McOwen in Ireland during the Great Famine (The "Hunger").  The Hunger killed one million people and forced one million more to migrate to other lands to survive.  Ethan and his family are on the verge of starvation and have decided to leave their home for New York.  Ethan, his mother and his Aunt Em can only bring what they can carry during their 50 mile walk to the harbor.  They have some raw potatoes, Aunt Em carries some of her wedding china and Ethan carries the six precious books he shared with his sister Ainslinn.  There's this heartbreaking scene that sort of reminded me of The Gift of the Maji when Aunt Em can't carry her china and Ethan leaves behind some of his books to carry the plates for his Aunt Em.  It had me crying as I read on the subway. 

Ethan watches his Aunt unwrap the six ceramic plates her husband had bought her as a wedding present.  They're handpainted with different designs, and she looks each of them over before picking out her favorite.

Well, dis one'll have to be enough to remember better days, she says, and wraps it back with her extra dress. 
Don't, Em, Ethan's Mam protests.  Moichael gave 'em to ya.
I have to, Nora, I can't carry 'em anymore....
Since at least Ainslinn's funeral, Ethan's felt like he's let everyone down.  Da told him he was the man of the house when he left, and even if he was just kidding about that, seein' how he was just a lad of ten when his Da said it, Ethan still feels like he's failed to take care of all of them the way he should've, the way his Da would've, or even Seanny.  And to see Aunt Em leave this treasure behind, after all she's already left back home, is about all he can take of that shame without doing something drastic. So he ducks behind a tree, unwraps his satchel, and makes the difficult decision in just a few seconds.  Shakespeare, Homer, Milton and Chaucer make the cut, while Shelley and Swift are left behind. Out of sight form his Mam and Aunt Em, he places the two books side by side and leans them against a tree, hoping they'll be adopted by passersby for something more than kindling or to wipe their arses. Then he walks over to the discarded plates and begins to wrap them carefully in his satchel.
Ethan, what're ya doin? Aunt Em asks.
I can carry dem, he says with confidence.
Now don't be stahrtin'--
I can carry dem, he interrupts like he never would, somehow stumbling upon a man's sense of resolution, what with how neither his Aunt, nor his Mam, say anything more about it.
There's only enough money for Ethan's passage in steerage on the "cattle car" to America.   His mother and aunt stay in Ireland and work until the family can raise money for their trip.  On each leg of Ethan's journey, he somehow makes friends and it is by tenacity and luck that he survives.  The friends that Ethan makes, his openness, his deep interest in the world around him stayed with me long after I'd finished the book.

We begin Micah's story when he's sixteen.  We learn that Micah's family is well regarded by their master, so much so that his father is able to strike a bargain on the day of Micah's birth.   Micah's father asks permission to plant and grow indigo in a small unused portion of the plantation.  He works during his free time and the harvest goes towards paying for Micah's freedom.  They have agreed that 1,000 lbs of indigo will buy Micah's freedom. This endeavor is a testament to Micah's father's hard work and their master's good faith, but it also depends upon the condition being complied with before any change of circumstance - and Fate is not kind to Micah or his family or his master.  We learn the cruel fate of a slave, and the ways that Micah tries to cope and builds his life, drawing on the pride in work, integrity, and skills that he learned from his father.

Micah and Ethan are only two of the four main characters. Mary and Marcella are just as complex as they struggle to establish their identities and independence.  All characters come together in a deftly crafted plot. If you enjoy historical fiction or are just looking for an engrossing read, do not miss May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.
ISBN-10: 0385534485 - Hardcover $25.95
Publisher: Doubleday (February 28, 2012), 400 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher. 

About the Author:
Peter Troy
is a former journalist and high school history teacher. He lives in New York state and is at work on his second novel.

Doubleday is sponsoring this giveaway of 1 copy of May the Road Rise Up to Meet You: A Novel. To enter, please recommend a book that you loved lately and tell us a little bit about it.

1. Please include your email address, so that I can contact you if you win. No email address, no entry.
2. You must be a follower to join the contest.
3.  One winner per household.
The contest is limited to US only. No P.O. boxes. The contest ends at noon on April 16, 2012. 


  1. I follow your blog.

    I am very interested in this book because some of my ancestors came over in the same time.
    From your review, the book sounds like it would be a joy to read.


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    I read Home Front by Kristin Hannah recently and liked it because it showed me how the men and women who are fighting wars for our country suffer for it personally.
    mce1011 AT aol DOT com