Small Things Like These
By Claire Keegan
Grove Press: Nov. 30, 2021
114 pages, $20
It’s December 1985 in the small town of New Ross in southern Ireland. The economy is suffering, the weather is blustery, and the residents are keeping their heads down and doing the best they can to get by. As in many such towns, the people of New Ross are interdependent; small kindnesses and acts of generosity warm hearts and sometimes hearths.
Bill Furlong is the local coal and timber merchant. He was born to a single mother, who worked for the wealthy Mrs. Wilson in her big house outside of town. She died when Bill was young but Mrs. Wilson and her live-in handyman, Ned, raised young Bill. The identity of his father has remained a mystery. Bill is approaching 40, a happily married man and father of five daughters. He made his way up from the bottom to eventual ownership of the coal yard.
But he’s preoccupied this Christmas season with thoughts of his childhood poverty and philosophical concerns about what his relentlessly hard work six days a week is adding up to. He leaves home while it’s still dark, works hard supervising his employees and making coal deliveries all day, and comes home in the dark, covered in coal dust. After dinner and some conversation with his wife Eileen and his daughters, he usually falls asleep in the chair by the fireplace. Is this all there is? Is he doing enough for the girls? Is Eileen happy with a workaholic husband? Yes, he’s come a long way from the humblest of beginnings, including a childhood in the 1950s and 60s in which he was bullied for his family circumstances in a decidedly Catholic culture. While much of the world progressed economically and socially during his lifetime, rural Ireland remained unchanged in many ways.
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Until one day, while making a delivery to the convent and “training school” on the hill across the muddy Barrow River from town, he discovers a teenage girl in the coal shed. She is barefoot, dressed in an oversized gray shift, and covered in coal. Was she hiding? Locked in as punishment? Bill knows the school takes in girls who’ve found themselves in trouble or been abandoned by their families. The nuns run a laundry service that is used by local businesses and well-off residents and which gives the girls the opportunity to work as well as go to school. Beyond that, he’s never given much thought to life behind the big black gates. The convent has always been a picturesque presence in New Ross but its residents are mostly invisible.
In the following days, as Christmas approaches, Bill learns more about life in the convent, what the girls are doing there, and how the nuns treat them and visitors like Bill. His concerns about his past and present are redirected to his future – and the future of these girls and a town that has remained silent in the shadow of its suspicions. The powers that be in the Church and the Irish government have long supported the convent and its “training school.” What can a man like Bill Furlong do? The risk to his carefully constructed life is too great.
Small Things Like These is not a heartwarming Christmas fable, despite being packaged to look like one. It’s a dark look at a town struggling through a recession and a man struggling with his conscience. He has his hands full with work and family. The residents of the training school are of no concern to the locals. But Bill absorbed some life lessons from Mrs. Wilson and benefited from her kindness and financial support over the years. What can be done to repay the favors that were done for him, live out his faith, and be a father his daughters will respect? What will the cost be?
Claire Keegan has written a spare novella exploring one man’s crisis of conscience. There is not a wasted word in its 114 pages. She is able to describe the town and its many characters with economic precision. The tone is calm and the surface undisturbed in that classic British/Irish manner. She doesn’t push the reader’s buttons with melodrama or polemical dialogue. Instead, she allows Bill and the reader to come to a decision in their own time. Small Things Like These explores actual events from the 1980s and 90s with sensitivity and humanity. It will break your heart, but it will also begin to help you put it back together again.