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Voices from the past speak through Polly to narrate the journey of ancestors

I am the first to express regret at my own alienation from my roots.

It is often a by-product of being a fourth- or fifth-generation immigrant. One is staunchly rooted in the tradition of the city to which one’s ancestors immigrated and the experience may be nearly forgotten.

I have often wished to trace the history of my family and regain for myself the great crossing that we made. And so it is with great pleasure that I introduce a book that is not only a lively and enjoyable read, but also, even if our own family recollections have long since vanished, allows us to retake our ancestors’ journey through the eyes of a young girl who endured a similar voyage.

The universal experience of migration is celebrated across cultures, and Polly of Bridgewater Farm: An Unknown Irish Story allows complete strangers to connect with the voices of their own past.

One woman, through meticulous research, lengthy investigation and skilful narration, has reconstructed a family history, focusing her narrative on the life of one girl, her great-aunt and honoured ancestor Mary Ann (Polly) Noble.

Montreal resident Catharine Fleming McKenty is a former research editor for Pace magazine, speechwriter for the Ontario minister of education, and employee at Reader’s Digest. She is co-author, with broadcaster husband Neil McKenty, of a best-seller, Skiing Legends and The Laurentian Lodge Club.

Several years ago, she set out to trace the life of her great-aunt, from her childhood in Ireland to her emigration and settlement in Canada.

“In moments of crisis,” McKenty writes in the author’s note, “I felt I could reach back into Aunt Polly’s strength, even though I had never met her.”

In 2002, she’d journeyed to the family farm in Northern Ireland.

“As I was leaving the farm, walking alone down the lane, I heard voices talking,” she writes. “It was suddenly clear to me that these were voices from the past, as though an invisible curtain had been pulled aside for a brief moment. I had to find out what these voices were saying. This book is the result” of that search.

The novel opens with two young people witnessing the burning of Montreal’s Parliament by disgruntled Tories (a part of our city’s history that many seem to have forgotten), destroying its chances of becoming a capital city. These are Polly Noble and her future husband, John Verner, and the year is 1849.

The narrative suddenly shifts to Ireland, nearly 15 years before, and we are introduced to Polly’s family and village.

We are then treated to a vividly imagined Irish childhood of the early 19th century, replete with youthful misadventure, natural disasters, family power struggles, religious tension, and farming.

McKenty has found the fine balance between historical detail and intimate family anecdotes: Polly’s tender relationship with her fragile storytelling sister and her youthful rebellion against a domineering matriarch are as compelling as the accounts of the famine and the “Great Wind” that swept across Ireland, destroying everything in its wake.

As Polly and her family set off on the journey across the Atlantic to escape the dreaded famine, the reader knows the horrors that await them on Grosse-Île, and yet is comforted by the promise granted at the beginning of the novel that Polly would settle in Canada and leave a legacy that would make her the subject of a biography two centuries later.

The book is a swift and pleasant read, the prose at once lyrical and accessible, the pages rife with illustrations, photographs and maps.

It is a journey immensely worth undertaking.

Polly of Bridgewater Farm is available at Paragraphe, Nicholas Hoare, and Westmount Stationery>.



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