4 out of 4 stars
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Kitchen Canary by Joanne C. Parsons is a historical novel about two young Irish immigrants living in Boston after the Civil War. Katie O’Neil is pushed (basically forced) by her destitute parents to move alone to America in order to earn money to send home. A job in Boston awaits, working alongside her cousin Moira Murphy as a domestic for an affluent family. Katie discovers the harsh realities of immigrant life, as Irish Catholics are treated poorly in Boston and her employer views her as his property in more ways than one. Although Moira finds a way out of her job through marriage, her painful memories may keep her from finding lasting happiness.
I absolutely loved this book and found it difficult to put down. The author has a real talent for describing the experiences of immigrants travelling like a pack of sardines on a ship, in search of a better life in America. The reality of the American dream is excellently written through the eyes of the main characters, as life in Boston is certainly not what they expected.
The story is told mainly in third person in alternating perspectives. These different points of view allow the reader a full picture of the hardships and prejudices Irish immigrants faced during this time period. There are also a few chapters in first person that highlight the backstories of some of the characters, including Moira’s husband Paddy and the women’s employers, Mr. and Mrs. Brennan. These first-person chapters are vividly written in a memoir style and give depth to the story.
The characters are well drawn and each of the supporting characters adds an interesting layer to the plot. There are also a few intriguing side stories, such as a local priest who manages the transport of Irish babies borne from rape, and Rose Brennan’s late-night conversations with Katie.
The author’s clear imagery made me feel like I was watching a movie. Moira and Katie get “nighttime visits” by Mr. Brennan. These rape scenes are made all the more heartbreaking by the revelations that this was a common occurrence between Irish women and their male employers during this period.
This well-written gem has certainly earned the highest rating, 4 out of 4 stars. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and stories about the immigrant experience. If you like curling up with a good book and getting whisked away to another place and time, Kitchen Canary is a perfect choice.
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