Review of NORAH, by Cynthia Neale

Today I have the pleasure of sharing with you my:

Review of—

Fireship Press’s re-release of Cynthia Neale’s Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York, instantly transports the reader into pre-Civil War New York City—a context teeming with the trials, triumphs, dreams, and detritus of many immigrants seeking freedom and affluence in America.
As one of two daughters in the McCabe family of Five Points, Norah has already survived the Great Hunger and a tumultuous sea voyage before setting out to make her own way as a business woman and feminist. Unwilling and constitutionally unable to accept the limited traditional roles of gender and clan her mother and sister exemplify, Norah questions and tests assumptions about her sex, her ethnicity, her religion, and her social status throughout Neale’s fast-paced novel. Employing her native intelligence, her keen observations of others, her book learning, and her necessary physical endurance, Norah marches through a steady succession of obstacles so that, by the novel’s conclusion, she personifies the steely fortitude that characterizes many an immigrant to a new world.
Norah’s used dress shop, A Bee in Your Bonnet, functions as its owner’s escape from poverty and her own adventure in the capitalism that defines American life. With her friend Mary (whose own story ultimately illustrates the bitter brutality and sorrow of many immigrants in their new environments), Norah aspires to high fashion and its upper-class market, yet also must trade with lowly prostitutes to ensure her business survives.
Similarly, while Norah embraces the feminist movement, she cannot ultimately close the chasm between its Protestant ideology and her Roman Catholic faith. Like every other human being moving from one frame of reference to another, she experiences the push and pull of opposing forces. It is those very oppositional tugs that humanize her character, that allow the reader to imagine Norah as a real person, as a woman who—like so many of us—is drawn with equal force to two competing entities.
In the course of her story, Norah becomes involved with a group of men, each one’s singular presence emblematic of the turmoil of the times and its pressure on her and other immigrant women. Questioned about a murder, Norah endures the distasteful and dangerous attentions of a New York City police commissioner and one of his minions who (in his own effort to Americanize himself) has dropped the “O’” from his “Leary” name tag. (The police man later figures predominantly in the aforementioned Mary’s story.) Norah later lands a job as a writer for The Irish American and struggles to gain her pen’s independence from the newspaper’s publisher. Next Mr. Murray, an active revolutionary against the British, wins Norah’s affections and her hand in marriage, and their passion—both political and romantic—provides exhilarating and painful sequences, including a kidnapping, as the novel progresses to its denouement. And at last, there is Sean, Norah’s past and her future, the face that causes Norah to hear “…a lively jig to the music in her head and heart.”
To see how Norah struggles, thrives, suffers, and survives, even finds herself in the simultaneous company of Mr. Murray, a fascinating priest, the New York City police department, and a notorious madam of a prosperous brothel, you will have to read the book yourself.
Cynthia Neale’s vivid writing provides a story rich in plot, gripping in narrative, and moving in its intricacies of the human condition. Illustrative of all three are the narrator’s opening lines in Chapter Fourteen:
“When Murray was first introduced to Norah, he saw reflected in her eyes what his father had taught him about many of Ireland’s arriving immigrants—that hunger for food had been replaced with hunger for worth.”
Make no mistake, Norah McCabe is worthy of a reader’s attention in Neale’s deftly rendered novel that bears its heroine’s name. A page-turner, a provocative rendering of immigrant life, and a paean to the Ireland Neale clearly loves, the novel will certainly enhance your bookshelf as it has mine.


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