It is like a family member-a younger sibling who follows you everywhere, demanding to be included in the smallest, most everyday events of your life. The younger sibling who, as you get older, people begin to mistake you for.
The interplay of history and identity is not new territory for Hamilton, whose acclaimed first memoir, “The Speckled People” (a New York Times notable book), reveals the struggles of growing up “speckled” in a nation with a fractured identity of its own. Born and raised in Dublin, Hamilton is the son of an Irish nationalist and a German immigrant mother, who lived as a young woman through Hitler’s rule. In “The Harbor Boys,” both of his parents are chained to history, though in very different ways. For his mother, history is something to be fixed or, in her words, undone. She keeps a scrapbook in an attempt to combine all of history into a single story that her children will understand and know not to repeat: “There is a lock of blond hair on one page and a picture of Martin Luther King on the next. School reports and pictures of tanks on the streets of Prague facing each other.” But some things — like her shaming by British troops after the war-cannot be undone.
On the other hand, for Hamilton’s father, history is something to which they should all return. A fierce proponent of Irish language and heritage, he will not allow anything English, especially the English language, in his house. Even the story of his wife’s shaming in Germany becomes connected to his obsession with Ireland’s struggle against the British: “He speaks as if my mother has become a part of Irish history now… He wishes he could have been there to defend her, but it’s too late and too long ago and there’s nothing he can do about it anymore except not to allow anything British under his roof.”
As the child of these parents, Hamilton feels that he is the physical manifestation of their struggles with history: In his lifetime, he has not felt the direct effects of World War II or British imperialism, but that does not mean that he has escaped history. As a young boy, witnessing the small tyrannies that the past holds over his family, he internalizes these national struggles in his everyday life. Everything from schoolyard troubles to his love of John Lennon becomes tied to these dramas.
“The Harbor Boys” chronicles the course of a single summer in Hugo’s adolescence, illuminated by flashbacks into earlier childhood. Through these flashbacks, the occurrences of that summer take on the tension and weight that propels the story as Hamilton attempts to gain independence from the histories that defined him for so long. Working at a harbor as a fisherman’s hand, Hamilton steps into a larger world outside of his home that at first seems liberating. But soon, life at the harbor falls into the clutches of history as a feud between two fishermen (one Catholic, one Protestant) escalates, it seems, in step with larger violence in the North.
This memoir offers us an engaging and complex story lived by conflicted people, told in language that is stunningly and refreshingly simple in comparison to its subject matter. The author finds the perfect balance between his observations and actions as a boy and retrospective insight.
“The Harbor Boys” is published by Harper Collins; 266 pp; $24.95.