book cover imageMay the Road Rise Up to Meet You
by Peter Troy.
Doubleday, 2012,
400 pp., $27.

“How you know whachu stitchin when it don’ look like nothing but a buncha threads ain’ got nothing t’do wit each otha?” asks the ten-year-old slave Mary as she watches her fellow slave and mentor Gertie, an expert seamstress, bring together an apparent mess of unrelated threads into a coherent and carefully crafted whole. Mary’s question provides the theme that knits together the four disparate characters of Peter Troy’s debut novel May the Road Rise Up to Meet You into a genuine communion of love and friendship that only “fit togetha the way it’s s’posed to be seen—’til you seein’ it frontsways.”

Troy plausibly weaves together the lives of an Irish immigrant in New York City, a cosmopolitan abolitionist from a wealthy and dysfunctional family, and two slaves with excellent trade skills over the backdrop of nineteenth-century New York, Virginia, and the Civil War. A Bildungsroman narrated from the perspective of each of the four characters, Troy’s novel relates a gripping and compelling tale of four individuals who see their lives as loose threads until they find the love that completes them and brings them to maturity. As they overcome pangs of guilt, vagaries of war, trials of loss, and the oppression of slavery, Troy vivifies the triumphs and tragedies of a bygone era with an historian’s knowledge and a storyteller’s flair.

Twelve-year-old Ethan McOwen arrives in Brooklyn in 1847, a refugee from “The Hunger” that had claimed the life of his beloved older sister Aislinn just a few months prior. Aislinn had imparted to Ethan a love of literature, and it is the Odyssey, his favorite, that provides a key to his character. Like Telemachus, Odysseus’s unproven son, Ethan sets off on a voyage to become a man, with an Irish twist that his battles are with guilt over the knowledge that the famine took his sister, not him.

The trans-Atlantic passage on the “Coffin Ship” claims the lives of nineteen other passengers, but Ethan survives due to the intervention of the sailor Suah, the first black man he has ever seen. “He was surprised, seein’ him up close, that there were no strange rings through the man’s nose or ears. He wore regular clothes that covered his whole body. He had shoes on too, and didn’t carry a spear, and Ethan decided that there must be two types of Africans, the ones he saw an illustration of in one of the English histories he and Aislinn used to read, and another group who were normal, just like Irishmen or Englishmen except for their skin and the way they talked.” Upon the ship’s arrival in the Hudson River port, Ethan confesses his added guilt over having made it this far when so many never had the chance. “Perhaps God have somet’ing he want you to do,” Suah replies from the perspective of hardship and experience.

Suah’s words resonate in Ethan’s mind in the coming years as he takes up residence in Brooklyn with his father and brother, who had already established themselves as a fisherman and a midlevel Tammany Hall functionary, respectively. When we meet Ethan again ten years later, his love for books and ideas earns him the nickname of “Perfessor” from his Irish friends, but they fail to earn him a place at New York University. He becomes a fisherman, a local baseball sensation, a photographer, and, despite Tammany’s influence, a supporter of Lincoln and his bid to halt the spread of slavery. He and three friends join the Irish Brigade, the Fightin’ Sixty-Ninth, and head south to fight in the Civil War.

Ethan’s detestation of slavery eventually brings him into the orbit of Marcella Arroyo, who enters the narrative in 1860. The daughter of a wealthy Spanish businessman whose philandering forced her family to emigrate to New York, Marcella is fiercely independent and principled, frustrated at society’s restrictions of women’s behavior and devoted to the causes of abolition and women’s suffrage. As she circulates among her high-profile friends in the Ladies Abolition Society, Marcella feels called to do more than just talk and send donations: “I mean to become a nurse. I mean to volunteer to take care of the wounded.” She believes she will fulfill her dreams only by following the advice of her dear Abuela: “A woman can only be happy when she has no papa and no esposo—nobody to tell her what she can do and what she cannot do.” Ethan’s self-deprecating humor and Irish charm—latent traits until they meet—finally scale the garrison she built around her heart. “And letting go of all her reserve, of everything she had felt necessary by way of self-preservation just a few hours before, she smiled back at him.”

Ethan and Marcella are two individuals who, seeking more than their peers, find completion in each other. The slaves Micah and Mary, by contrast, who first appear in 1853, survive daily subjugation by becoming their own islands. Micah is sold away from his family at the age of seventeen to the indolent and cruel Dunmore of Charlottesville. Dunmore profits by renting out Micah’s expert carpentry skills, yet he does not spare Micah the rod. “Then a loud hiss and the crack of it against his bare back. Like fire streaked across his skin from rib to rib. Then winding up again, and another. And another.” But Micah resolves not to yield: “Just cold, unfeeling, survival. Through whatever might come. Like the mule he now was. And nothing more.”

Mary is purchased as a companion for the spoiled Justinia Kittredge through whom she learns to read and speak French as an onlooker to her mistress’ tutoring sessions. Mary has learned to sew from Gertie, and she becomes the most sought after dressmaker in Richmond, generating a substantial business for her owner. But neither the kind treatment and nor her business success could atone for her lack of freedom. Without it she was forced to be “a chameleon in an ever-changing environment. . . . But all of this constant changing made her feel quite alone despite having people around her constantly. So somewhere along the way, Mary realized, she had become an island.”

It is the kindled friendship and love begun over concurrent projects during the war that humanize this mule and this island, and in recovering their humanity they discover the need for freedom. A week before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation goes into force, they attempt to escape, but fail. Losing each other, they fall back to their dehumanized states, with Micah descending into the throes of animal rage. Only in helping to liberate other slaves does he finally become a man again.

Troy brilliantly recreates the nineteenth century. For the most part his characters take part in recreated history: his accounts bring to life the Irish famine, life among New York’s high and low society, and the hopeless existence of slaves. In other instances he places his characters within the context of specific historical events: Ethan sets up his camera next to Lincoln during the Gettysburg dedication; his friend Harry takes the place of Brooklyn Excelsior’s pitcher James Creighton to be the first ever to deliver an overhand pitch to the bewildered New York Knickerbockers batters. But Troy is at his best when he recounts through the eyes of Ethan the battles of the fierce and dogged Irish Brigade in their victories and defeats at Malvern Hill, Antietam, and their annihilation at Gettysburg. “The command comes to move forward again, fix bayonets on the move, and get ready to take the Sunken Road hand to hand. But you don’t get more than three steps when you feel a ball of fire pop into your right leg, and before you can tumble from it, another goes through the same shoulder where you got it with the bayonet, making the same, terrible, sickening sound of flesh giving way to metal the way it did when you struck your bayonet into that man at Malvern Hill.”

Ethan is the last of the four characters to reach full maturity. Like his hero Odysseus, his journey ends twenty years after it began, on the anniversary of Aislinn’s death. In the presence of his enlarged family and new friends, Ethan reenacts the scene “when Odysseus is given the bag t’contain all th’winds so dey can make it home t’Ithaca,” just as he had done with Aislinn days before she died. Now, observing all that has transpired in his life “frontsways,” the wind, personified by his young daughter, blows away his guilt and brings him to “at long last, redemption.” The Yankee motto during the war was “Union and Liberty.” It is through personal unions that Troy’s wartime characters overcome their own internal divisions to find the truth that sets them free. 

David G. Bonagura, Jr., a former associate editor of The University Bookman, writes from New York.