Saturday, July 20, 2013

Historical Fiction: NORY RYAN'S SONG, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Giff, Patricia Reilly.  2000. Nory Ryan’s Song. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
ISBN 0-385-32141-4
Front Cover

Set in 1845, Nory Ryan’s world is about to change.  In Ireland, the English are destroying people’s homes and taking their animals as overdue rent.  People are already beginning to starve when the potato crop fails.  Nory works as a helper for an elderly woman named Anna while one member of her family after another goes to America or goes to work in the city.  Anna teaches Nora how to use natural remedies to heal others as they grow closer over time.  As the English strip the countryside bare, Nora must use every ounce of her courage and resourcefulness to stay alive long enough for her father to send her tickets to America when he returns from his deep sea fishing trip.


Patricia Reilly Giff includes rich details that brings this desperate period of history to life, tearing at heartstrings, while always maintaining the storyline.  In Children’s Literature in Action, Dr. Vardell quotes critic Zena Sutherlan, who says, “’The historical novel clothes the bare historical facts with trappings of a thousand details, bringing emotion and insight to scholarship’ (2004, p384).”  This novel contains many details and deep emotion, while avoiding what some authors and editors call, “data dumping” at the beginning of the story.  As Dr. Vardell points out, it’s important for the story to avoid “overwhelming us with historical details and long descriptions.”  Yet readers need to get a sense of time and place quickly.  Giff excels at this balance.

For example, on the very first page, we see that Nory Ryan is on a cliff road.  There is mist from the sea and someone named, “Sean Red Mallon” is calling her.  Such an Irish name!  Then he offers her purple seaweed, which she sniffs, referring to it as, “Dulse.”   And Giff writes, “The smell of the sea was in it, salty and sweet.  I was so hungry I could almost feel the taste of it on my tongue” (1).  Already, we learn that Nory is hungry enough to be excited about eating seaweed straight from the sea.  The text continues a few minutes later on the next page, “’I am Queen Maeve,’ I sang, twirling away from the edge.  ‘Queen of old Ireland,’” (2).  Now we know for sure that this is Ireland.  Everything is smoothly done.  

Nory is a young girl whose first act that we witness is to try to save a little beggar girl and her mother, by begging a coin from a woman who scares her and promising to work for her.  By using first person point of view, the emotion is much more immediate and intense for readers.  As a reader, we see her courage and her passion to protect the helpless.  We immediately root for her.  Giff keeps the English as flat characters that we can easily loathe (and we do.)

In Children’s Literature in Action, Dr. Vardell states, “Dialogue should be used judiciously and should always capture the speech patterns of the era,” (191).  There is quite a bit of dialogue in this book, but she does use Irish endearments and words regularly like salt, flavoring the speech with the flow of Gaelic.  For example, the line, “’Come, madra,’ I said.  ‘We’ll go home,’” (11) uses the word madra that means dog, which I only know because there is a short glossary of 9 words.  Even the way Giff uses adjectives such as fuafar, which means disgusting, gives authenticity to the dialogue. 

The theme of standing for your family and doing what it takes to protect them certainly resonates throughout history, including today.  Thankfully, we are not facing something like the Great Hunger, but that sort of deep-seated need to survive always interests children, as seen in the love of books like Hatchet and Island of the Blue Dolphins.  Her choice to stay behind and send her little brother ahead touches hearts because we can all identify with her love for her family.

Ms. Giff includes a letter to the reader at the end that explains the Great Hunger more, and explains her own search for information about it from her Irish family.  She describes the reluctance of most of her relatives to even mention that time period, which really drives home the scars this terrible time left behind on millions of people.  Ms. Giff is a Newbery-honor winning author, so she has credibility right away as a writer, but I would have liked a list of references at the end of the book.  Her heritage is Irish, but listing sources on the Great Hunger or a list of additional books to read would have enhanced this book.


"Allowing few glimmers of hope and numerous setbacks for Nory and her loved ones, this gritty slice of realism grows increasingly ominous as it progresses. At the same time, the hardships throw Nory together with her aging neighbor, Anna, a healer who initially frightens her, and their growing friendship is one of the novel's greatest strengths. Other characters, such as Celia, Maggie and Granda, are not as fully fleshed out. Still, vivid descriptions of the stench of failed crops and the foul-tasting food that keeps them alive will linger in readers' minds even after Nory's salvation is secured."-- Publisher’s Weekly, July 24, 2000

"Hunger is common before blight destroys the potato crop; with no potatoes, the people face starvation. The Ryans are eager to join the lucky ones who have obtained passage to America. Nory's observations of the land, cliffs, sea, and people in her community are woven with poignant memories and realistic conversations that vividly re-create this tragic period in Ireland's history…. Today's readers will appreciate this compelling story with a wonderful female protagonist who is spirited and resourceful, and has a song in her heart."—School Library Journal, August 1, 2000

"The finely paced novel balances the physical and emotional horrors of famine--described in visceral detail--with Nory's courage and intelligence, the love she has for her family, and her close friendship with Sean, a local boy. No notes are provided, so children with some basic historical background will glean the most from the story. But Giff brings the landscape and the cultural particulars of the era vividly to life and creates in Nory a heroine to cheer for. A beautiful, heart-wrenching novel that makes a devastating event understandable."—Booklist, Oct 15, 2000

"Vivid detail brings to life the fields filled with rotting crops, the merciless landlords, and the rocky landscape that offers no respite to the starving families. Readers will be drawn to Nory's spirit and admire the courage she shows while helping her family and friends. By breathing life into the events that led her great-grandparents to emigrate from Ireland, the author transports readers to a time and place few will be able to forget."—Voice of Youth Advocates, Feb 1, 2001

  • Read and compare with another of Ms. Giff's historical fiction novels, Lily’s Crossing.
  • Study Ireland, bringing in nonfiction books on Ireland and even the the Great Hunger.
  • Bring in a guest speaker about Ireland, perhaps someone whose family survived the Great Hunger and passed down the tale of it, or someone with expert knowledge about it who is a good speaker for children.
  • For a public library event, perhaps do a book talk on this near St. Patrick’s day, when so many people are already interested in Ireland’s history.
  • Invite a storyteller to  tell traditional Irish stories or invite an Irish dance group to perform.  This would celebrate Ireland’s culture that has survived despite so many Irish people being forced to leave their country.


Historical fiction is my least favorite genre, I admit.  However, this book was a fast read, and very gripping.  There wasn’t any of what I think of as “gratuitous sadness,” like when the dog always seems to die in so many middle grade books.  Why are the dogs always getting it?  No one died just so that someone could be REALLY SAD.  Here, the country-wide tragedy of the Great Hunger is tragedy enough, though there was a time when I did fear for a particular dog in the story.   I am thankful for the way the book concludes.  Nory has to leave Ireland with her family, but she does not face the worst of what could have happened. No one in her family dies from the famine this time around, nor does her dearest friend who is also going to America.  It’s a wonderfully written book.

Works Referenced

Giff, Patricia Reilly.  1999.  Lily’s Crossing.  New York, NY:  Random House.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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