This interview is the last of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online poll opens in April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week, we’re chatting with author Rosanne Parry about her book, Last of the Name, which follows 12-year-old Danny O’Carolan and his sister, Kathleen, who move to New York City from Ireland during the Civil War in 1863.
What drew you to this time period and to the experiences of Irish immigrants in particular? Were any of your characters, settings, or plot points borrowed from actual people and places you came upon in your research?
My father’s people are from Ireland and were orphaned shortly after arriving here, so he has no stories of his family history to share. Naturally, this made me curious about what their experiences might have been and also freed me from any anxiety I might have had about sharing the stories of real people not alive to consent to the sharing. So my main characters are completely my own invention. Other elements came more directly from my research.
In 2011, I toured a reconstructed famine ship which is now a museum in the Liffey River in Dublin. I learned there about how many girls left Ireland at a young age and came to America alone. That got me curious! And it provided the engine of my plot—the upsurge of Irish domestic servants and the black workers that they displaced, and an economic opportunity available to girls and women but less accessible to men.
I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon at the American Irish Historical Society in New York, right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s one of the grand old houses of the era and they let me take a look at the servants quarters upstairs. I was shocked by how dark and narrow the stairs were and how cramped and drafty the upstairs quarters were. On the other hand, compared to the conditions for Irish peasants in Ireland in the 1860s, it would have felt quite luxurious. The Treadwell family home was inspired by that house.
The history of vaudeville intrigued me, too. After the Civil War, a singer and entrepreneur named Tony Pastor set about reshaping the music hall performances of the day from bawdy spectacles to a family-oriented variety shows. Many of the performers in the very early days of vaudeville were immigrants singing in their home languages, and many of the historic playbills and programs I found in archives had traditional Irish singers and dancers. So that research informed the plot as well.
Do you have a personal connection to Irish folk music and dance?
I have loved Irish music my whole life. It gave me something more lively and interesting to play than the same old Suzuki tunes everyone plays on the violin. My children took an interest in Irish dance and three of my four competed in feiseanna for years. All those years of going to dance classes and competitions and performances gave me a circle of acquaintances in Irish music and dance—all of whom were very helpful when it came to researching traditional music.
Special shout out to my harp teacher Elizabeth Nicholson and to Phillip and Pam Boulding and the whole Magical Strings family for their kindness and support. I love to write about the arts for middle grade readers because those years tend to be a tad short on empowering experiences. But for myself, and for kids lucky enough to have music, dance, and theater in their schools or families, creating music together can be a terrifically powerful, even a formative experience. Especially now that we are all sheltering from a pandemic, I’m feeling the power of music to soothe and unite us.
The Draft Riots in 1863 remain the deadliest riot in New York City’s history, led largely by Irish Americans and targeting both the African American citizens and city’s wealthy. What did you feel your responsibility was as an author for young readers when describing this event and the prejudices towards and between African Americans and Irish Americans during this time?
First of all, I’d love to recommend Riot by Walter Dean Myers and A Door at the Crossroads and A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott. These books look at the New York City Draft Riots from the African American perspective. Second, I’d like to thank my publisher for hiring an African American historian with a specialty in the history of New York City, Dr. Leslie Harris. She was very helpful.
I found the Draft Riots so compelling because of the role newspaper propaganda had in shaping the attitudes of the public. Many New York newspapers were southern sympathizing, because many businessmen, who funded the papers, relied on a steady supply of cheap cotton from the South to fuel mills in the North. The immigrant Irish and the African American New Yorkers had much in common. Imagine how different the labor history of this country would have been if they had made common cause and fought together for things that would have benefitted them both—work place safety, decent wages, equal pay, access to pensions? The wealthy of the day had much to lose and so they pitted two communities against each other. This story highlights for me the vital importance of having a free and independent press, not just politically independent, but financially independent as well. I hope my readers take the importance of the news to heart and consume our current-day media with an informed and critical eye.
Why do you feel young people should read historical fiction?
I’ve long believed that the conversation a book inspires is more important than the words of the story. I think historical fiction encourages important conversations about difficult things like racial and economic injustice, religious intolerance, and family tragedy. Sometimes it is easier to have that conversation at a historical remove. There are good books about the contemporary immigration experience: One just published this month is Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. I also recommend Other Words for Home by Jasmin Warga which won a Newbery honor this year. But people immigrating across the world today face many of the dangers that my characters did 150 years ago.
What three words would you use to describe Last of the Name?
I’m going to borrow words from Susan Fletcher who so kindly offered her recommendation for my book jacket: poetry, humor, and heart.
By Ava Prince