Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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This novella is small, but powerful and unfortunately, it’s timely as well. It is set in 1985 and though times are hard in Ireland, it’s almost Christmas and folks are in a happy mood. The central character, Bill Furlong, has quite the backstory, and is surely facing a difficult economic future. His mother became pregnant while working in the household of Mrs. Wilson, the wealthy Protestant widow in town. After her Catholic family turned her out, Mrs. Wilson took care of Bill’s mother and supported and encouraged Bill as he grew up. Bill was called ugly names at school, but was able to succeed and now is respected as a hard-working businessman, running a coal and timber delivery service. He treats his employees well and works as hard as anyone.

A bit of background on the economy of Ireland:  After the Republic of Ireland came into existence in 1922, times were very hard until the 1960s when the population decline was reversed. Then in the 1970s and 1980s a bad economy and emigration returned. In the 1990s the Celtic tiger era arrived and all was well until the 2008 recession. I assume that Bill Furlong would not have done well in the modern economy built by foreign investment with an emphasis on the information technology industry. In the mid-1980s Bill is very conscious that he has no economic security and that leaves him very anxious.

Nevertheless, Bill is generous and tells his wife about encountering a needy child in the community and giving him the change in his pocket. His wife expresses her worry about raising their five daughters and thinks he should not be emptying his pocket for the family of someone who drinks. The description of a day the family experiences shortly before the holiday tells how hard they work and that there is always another task to undertake in the household.

Twice Bill has encounters with young women at the laundry run by the nuns that make it clear they are horribly mistreated. He is warned by his wife and by a friend who runs an eating establishment that crossing the nuns would be very bad for his business. Reviews I had read indicated this is a book about courage and as I came near the end, I wondered when that would turn up. Well, it did and was a welcome relief.

As we read the proposals by state legislators and Supreme Court justices that move us into the era where young women are forced to reverse the shortage of babies for adoption, I found this a chilling book. In this country we did not have an institution like the Magdelene Laundries so willing to exploit and punish young women as they provide babies for adoption; that is small comfort.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These, Grove Press, 2021, 118 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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