On its most immediate level, the title of Mary Gordon’s fourth novel, which traces the lives of four generations in the family of Ellen and Vincent MacNamara, indicates the name by which the Irish immigrants referred to the promised land across the Atlantic. Ellen (nee Costelbe), now ninety years old and debilitated by a series of six strokes, is confined to the house in Queens where she and Vincent have lived for sixty-three of the sixty-six years of their married life. At sixteen, she fled Ireland, using money taken from her openly adulterous father. To leave meant deserting her mother, physically worn down and traumatized by years of successive pregnancies and stillbirths. Having seen her mother “brutalized” in this fashion has colored Ellen’s personality, first as a working woman and later as a wife and mother.
When she first came to American shores, she hated being “in service,” seeing it as a kind of enslavement that meant relinquishing one’s self to the control of others. Voracious reading of books from a discard bin became a means of empowerment, however, leading to active agitation in the Women’s Trade Union League and dreams not of domesticity or a room of one’s own but “of public rooms” where one’s impact could be more widespread.
Even an essentially happy marriage could not confer happiness on the angry and resentful Ellen, who disbelieved in its possibility. In her mind as she lies dying, she links her impending death with having allowed Vincent to “unseal” and deflower her as a young bride. When, more than sixty years after that—and ten months before the day on which the novel opens—she struck him as he administered her medicine and sent him to the floor, breaking his leg, it signalled that her refusal to submit to “the ways of men [that] do damage in the world” was still strong within her. Just as a long day’s work as a seamstress had allowed little time for thought, so the earlier years of motherhood denied her much of the reading or thinking necessary to nurture the strength that Ellen deems essential if a woman is to cut like a man through the “world’s murk.”
Vincent, too, when he came to “the other side,” found that working like an animal in the stench and filth of the city’s bowels building the IRT subway left him too tired for thought. Yet eventually America fulfilled its promise for him as “a place you could stretch your legs and take some giant steps” as he became a signal repairman, an important mover in the Transport Workers Union, and then a middle-class “man of property.” There is little sentimentality expressed by either of the MacNamaras or their descendants over the Ireland left behind—a scenically beautiful but bigoted land, “hobbled both by priests and by poverty” and distrustful of any pleasure in life.
Once in America, the notion of “the other side” assumes a different dimension for these immigrants, who begin to aspire to a social status once closed to them; now working-class Catholics, caught on “the moving staircase of American upward striving” and mobility, attempt to achieve full economic security and status. Yet even those of the third generation—the well-educated grandchildren such as Camille and Daniel, whose lives as dedicated lawyers (yet unsuccessful spouses) form the other major focus of this saga—still face priestly admonitions during the 1960’s to remain somehow outside the establishment, not to cross over to “the other side” by marrying someone of another faith. The inevitable feeling of otherness is only increased by the cultural chauvinism that almost guarantees that members of one ethnic or religious group will be considered insiders while condemning others to remain forever outside.
By far the most important layer of meaning in Gordon’s title, however, resides in the association of going over to “the other side” with the coming of death, whose approach for Ellen must be faced by all four generations of MacNamaras. They have faced death’s presence in the family before; Ellen and Vincent’s only son, John, was killed in World War II, leaving behind a wife pregnant with Dan, who had been conceived out of wedlock and would be taken from his mother and reared by Ellen. When her only son died in a conflict that even Ellen’s beloved Franklin Roosevelt could not avoid, she thought that her whole world had been taken from her, yet her husband Vincent would not allow her the full expression of her grief For twenty years, their indolent alcoholic daughter Magdalene (mother of Camille) has lived reclusively, angry that the death from breast cancer that she expected and was ready to accept has not yet come.
Ellen herself, though she believes...
(The entire section is 1937 words.)