Ginny turns in circles, looking for any trace of life, a single green leaf, a purple blossom, a breath of prayer. But there is nothing, only the stench of death now, rising up from the soil, clinging to the thick air like a fetid warning. Everything, everything is rot.
(from The Crooked Branch, page 3)
The Crooked Branch follows two desperate mothers struggling through vastly different hardships, one in present-day Queens and the other in Ireland in 1846-47 during the Great Hunger, also known as the potato famine. Majella’s present-day story centers on her inability to adapt to motherhood and her fears about her mental health. She feels like she failed baby Emma from the beginning because she had a c-section after a long and difficult labor. She loves her daughter, but worries that she’ll never be the mom she dreamed of being, feels that she’s lost the person she was in her life before, and thinks she’s going crazy. She doesn’t think it’s postpartum depression; she thinks being a bad mother has been passed down through the generations and is in her genes — and the dreams, the blow-ups, and the inappropriate comments she can’t help making must prove it.
Majella’s relationship with her own mother is hardly a model one. Her mother is so far removed from anything that’s real, rambling on and on about random things and never stopping to listen to her daughter, who is falling apart at the seams. When Majella finds a diary written by an ancestor who survived the famine in Ireland, there’s one passage that makes her believe she is genetically programmed to fail at motherhood.
Back in 1846, Ginny Doyle is living a happy existence with her husband, Raymond, and their brood, Maire, Michael, Maggie, and Poppy, when the blight suddenly descends upon their farm and ruins their potato crop. With all the other crops and farm animals — aside from a few hens and the cabbages and turnips Ginny grows in her own garden — needed to pay rent to their English landlord, those potatoes were all the family had for themselves until the next harvest.
It’s not long before the blight leads to mass evictions and widespread hunger. Parents waste away and watch their children do the same. Neighbors steal from one another. The “famine fever” spreads. The Doyles are better off than many of their neighbors, but still, Raymond thinks their only hope is for him to set sail for New York and stay with his brother while he gets a job and sends money home to his family. When months go by with no word and no money and their food runs out, Ginny is forced to take matters into her own hands and make an impossible decision in order to keep her children alive.
The Crooked Branch is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. Normally when I read a novel that weaves together the past and the present, I find myself drawn to the historical story and think the present-day story is just so-so. But this time around, I was equally captivated. Majella’s first-person narrative was so honest and even funny. It brought me back to when I was a new mom, and at times, it felt like I was reading about my own life. Ginny’s story (told in the third-person) was so heartbreaking, but her strength, determination, and her fierce love for her children were admirable. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live during the famine, and Cummins does an excellent job portraying the fear, helplessness, and desperation of the Irish people. Majella’s and Ginny’s stories alternate by chapter, so just when you think your heart is about to burst, there’s an injection of humor and snarkiness that makes the depressing scenes more manageable.
The Crooked Branch is a story with motherhood at its core, how parenting comes with its ups and downs, no matter the time or place. Majella’s problems may seem insignificant in comparison to Ginny’s, but her fears and inner turmoil are authentic. Cummins paints a picture of two women willing to do anything to protect their children and addresses the issue of heritage and one’s identity after becoming a mother. It’s a tale of mothers and daughters — Majella and the mother she feels she never knew, and Ginny and Maire, who was forced to grow up too soon. Cummins’ prose flows so beautifully that it’s easy to get lost in the story and breeze through a whole chunk of pages without even realizing it. The connections between the past and the present are satisfying, and the characters are so fascinating that I didn’t want the novel to end.
Disclosure: I received The Crooked Branch from NAL for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.