John Francis Patrick Murphy’s OUR IMMIGRANTS’ SON is written in two parts, the first substantially longer than the second. The first consists of a series of “prose poems” – written in beautifully poetic language – concerning the author’s immigrant ancestors, beginning with Patrick Murphy and Mary Heffernan Murphy, who first came to Lawrence, Massachusetts from Ireland just before the worst of the Great Famine, referred to here as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. The author weaves in historical information, documents, pictures, and images, from ship manifests to pictures of family members to enlistment papers and personal letters. The wealth of detail here enriches rather than overwhelms, creating a sense of real human connection, the feeling that we are interacting across centuries with real people who lived and loved and worried as we do. The author’s work is based solidly on verifiable facts, documented history, and reasonable evidence, but he also does not hesitate to interpret for his ancestors, attributing to them emotions, values, and perspectives that may indeed have been theirs, and certainly seem likely enough. This adds a touch of color that beautifies the project, making it a story rather than a simple nonfiction account. Since he is the loving and respectful descendant of those he’s writing about, however, he frequently seems to view them through rose-colored glasses, celebrating their hard work, solid moral values, religious faith, and devotion to family and community, until they almost seem a bit too good to be real.
Readers looking for juicy family scandal, or skeletons in the family closet won’t find them here. The closest Murphy gets even to a real crisis of conscience has to do with Michael Murphy’s service as a chief mill inspector for the Lawrence Textile Industry during the Bread and Roses strike in 1912. The author does not hesitate to talk about the hard questions concerning industrialization, worker safety, unionization and strikes, and the hard, thankless, and dangerous work performed by millions of immigrant workers, many women and children, in textile mills. He also, however, takes care to describe his ancestor as respected by the entire community, workers and bosses alike, which if true seems rather an impressive feat of diplomacy.
The second, much shorter, part of the book is a discussion of Murphy’s experience writing the first part, of the research he did, choices he made, and some useful advice concerning the writing of family histories. It’s a useful read for anyone planning to look into their past and write about it. In short, if you want a romantic and loving tale of a family’s immigration to America and interaction with significant events in American history, this will fill the bill nicely, all the better for actually being true.
OUR IMMIGRANTS’ SON is a tender, rose-colored look at the author’s ancestors, which seeks to inspire others to lovingly explore our common history as embodied in the individual lives of our family members.
~Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader