PreS-Grade 3. “Katie says she’s sick of potatoes boiled and boring at every meal and she wishes they’d go away. But when the potato crop turns black and famine comes to Ireland, she feels she caused the trouble.
True to the viewpoint of one small child, Hazen brings the history close: the hunger, the evictions, and the strength of family. Katie’s mother is in heaven, her father is in America, and when he sends for her, she travels with her older across the stricken country, survives the crowded ship, and arrives in America where her Da holds her “heart close.”
As in McCully’s Caldecott winner, Mirette on the High Wire, and her other picture books about young girls in history, the beautiful impressionistic watercolor paintings set the sturdy child against the background of the times. The interior scenes are dark and troubled but the suffering is distanced. Even with the blight, the Irish landscapes are filled with light. In words and pictures, the narrative shows the hardship and the hope.”
It happened overnight. One day the potatoes were firm and fine. The next they were mushy and covered with black spots.
Katie went with Grand Da to inspect them.
“There’s rot everywhere,” Brian said, holding up a spoiled potato. “I’ve never seen the likes or it. We’re no food but the pratties. What can we do?”
Grand Da tasted a potato, gagged, and spit out the pieces. “We must pray tomorrow will be better,” he said. “And eat what we have stored.”
Katie swallowed hard. A fearful thought sank like a stone in her stomach, It’s all my fault. I wished the potatoes away.”
In Galway at last they trudge to the ticket office. The next day they sailed with the tide. They were herded up the gangplank in a push of people so fierce that Mam’s shawl was almost wrenched from Katie’s shoulders.
There quarters were cramped and smelly. People moaned, and fought for blanket space. Katie hugged her knees and tried not to cry.
The trip seemed to take forever. Katie sat outside as much as possible. She clutched her doll and tried to remember Mam’s arms and face, and Grand Da, so full of fun before she said the shameful thing that made the potatoes go away.
When hunger gnawed, she rocked herself to sleep, to the lullaby her mother crooned when she was little.
Your da is a song,
Sleep deep, sweet Katie
though the night be long.
Though rain pecks the roof
and the wind be howls wild,
God keep you from harm,
One night there was a terrible storm. Katie’s stomach lurched with the waves.
“It’s a nor’easter, “ a kind woman said. She held Katie’s head and comforted her. “Such a storm means land is near. Keep hope in your heart. I hear Boston streets are paved with gold.”
“That’s not what I hear!” Brian, who’d been talking to the big boyos, cut in. “I hear the streets are cobblestones and the Irish are called names.”
“Hush!” the woman waggled a finger and Katie covered her ears.
Brian snorted. “That’s not hard in this coffin ship, with so many sick and dying.”
The next day the sea quieted, a gull landed on the ship, and Katie saw shoreline. She poked Brian and shouted, “Land! I’ll be seeing Da soon.”
Then a new fear stabbed. What if Da isn’t there? Or doesn’t recognize me so scrawny? Or doesn’t want me, once he knows what I’ve done.
But there he was, the same broad-shouldered, big-grinning, bear-hugging Da. Katie flew to him and melted in his hug.
“Och, child! You’re stick thin!” he said, plucking her up. “But I’d know you anywhere. And can this be Brian, a mere lad when I left, now almost a man? I want to thank you for caring for me daughter.”
“Are Boston streets truly paved with gold? Katie asked remembering what the boat woman told her.
“Nay,” said Da with a wink. “But I earn dollars on the docks where I work. I’ll show you on the way home….
Katie slipped into a seat. The sight of all that food turned her legs to water.
Da said, “God bless those we love in Ireland and out new land, and bless the food we eat.” He paused and added, “Thanks be for the bravery of Brian and the spunk of me Katie. I am full to bursting proud!”
Katie did not budge. Her eyes were fixed on the mountain of mashed potatoes with onion bits, lashings of milk, and a knob of butter, just the way Mam used to make them.
“Child, you’re not eating,” Da said, concerned. “Is the food not to your liking?”
“Aye, ‘tis much to my liking,” Katie answered. “But I can’t eat.”
“Because I don’t deserve to, because of the wicked thing I said,” Katie confessed.
Then , in a tumble of tears, she told of the long-ago Sunday when she wished the potatoes away, and how everything awful happened after—how “the pratties got mushy and Grannie got sick, and Grand Da was so mad he sent me away.”
“Nay,” Katie’s da said, holding her heart-close. “Believe me, your words weren’t wicked. Nor can words make bad things happen. None of it was of your doing. The Famine was caused by a fungus. The fever, by disease. And Grand Da isn’t mad at you. He never was. “So eat, Katie lass, and know how big you are loved.”
Katie wiped her eyes and took a bite. It was powerful good. The relief she felt, knowing what happened wasn’t her fault, was like sun after rain. It filled her with warmth.