. Because of these tensions, their conversations usually revolved around to-do lists she’d compile for him. But on a winter night in the late 1980s, she began to speak of her mother and in a matter of three minutes, she relayed a story that would occupy his mind for almost 20 years: “John, you know when Mother was young she was hired out at Allen’s over at Rushey. Well what you don’t know is that she had a baby. Allen was the father. Then she was taken from Allen’s and Father married her. It was very hard for Mother, John. She had a baby every year after that. And one other thing John, Father was not good to Mother. So you see John. Look at the kind of people we were.”
These few sentences, spoken in frankness not long before her death, would lead Throne to research the hiring system that existed in rural Ireland less than 100 years ago – a system that enslaved his grandmother under conditions so harsh as to work a strong, determined woman to death at the age of 20. Under the system, impoverished parents sold children as young as 7 to farmers. Reduced to chattel, these children labored to earn money for their parents, whom they rarely saw, if at all.
“The Donegal Woman” is Throne’s attempt to imagine the life of his grandmother under these circumstances. At the age of 12, Margaret Wallace is sold to a man named Allen. Her parents, poor Protestant farmers, have little choice but to do this, although they do trust that Allen is a good man, “one of our own” (that is, Protestant). For two years, Margaret is forced to sleep in a barn while she performs heavy labor fit for a grown man. Regularly raped by Allen, she becomes pregnant at 14. In order to avoid a scandal, as Allen is an upstanding member of the Protestant church, the local bishop arranges to sell Margaret to a bachelor three times her age for the price of a cow.
As important as this story is historically, politically, and socially, as a novel, “The Donegal Woman” aims to convey its message through art. Few will doubt that Margaret’s story is incredible, but this should not be confused with artistic success. Throne is, above all, a political writer, which is evident almost immediately. Much of the book reads more like an essay than a novel. The dominant voice in “The Donegal Woman” is not Margaret’s, but Throne’s. He won’t surrender the narrative to his characters. Instead, he tells us what we should be seeing and how we should feel, not letting his characters live their own story, and not trusting that we as readers will understand its significance. With this kind of over-direction, the majority of the book’s insights are redundant, obvious, or out of place (a shame, since Throne filters Margaret’s story through the lens of class – a refreshing angle that transcends religious strife). And strangely, the writing often swings from the academic to the tortured inner monologues of the uneducated characters. At these times, the writing is at its best, but these interludes often and easily fall into mind-numbing repetition. Despite these shortcomings, “The Donegal Woman” still held my interest, although for purely academic reasons. But since it is written as a novel, there isn’t nearly enough factual information to satisfy my curiosity.
For more information on how to obtain “The Donegal Woman” go to www.thedonegalwoman.com