MURKY OVERHEAD by Michael C. Connolly; Tower Publishing, 2021; 287 pages, $19.95; ISBN 978-1-7355660-6-1.


Irish-American writer Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) wrote: “The Irish love words, and use as many of them in a sentence as possible.” And Portland author Michael Connolly’s debut novel, “Murky Overhead,” is a delightfully deliberate and vividly wordy blend of historical fiction and family saga.
The novel is set in Portland in 1900, the perfect set-up for Connolly since he is a long-time resident of Munjoy Hill and is clearly proud of his own Irish heritage. He is an award-winning promoter of Portland’s Irish history through his essays and a documentary film.
The story revolves around the Folan family, Irish-Catholic immigrants living in a tenement on Munjoy Hill. Coley, husband and father, and Mary Joyce, wife and mother, are raising nine children (with one more on the way). Coley works as a longshoreman on Portland’s waterfront, shoveling coal, struggling to support his family at 30-cents-an-hour wages. They are a solid, happy Irish family: He has his say, she gets her way.
The Folan’s story is compelling; however, the real strength is in Connolly’s outstanding portrayals of the political, economic and social factors of that era. He accurately and colorfully describes the city’s racial, religious and cultural divides among immigrants and Yankees, as well as the contentious inner workings of the Portland longshoremen’s union, competition for coveted waterfront jobs, and how Irish immigrants viewed America: “Tis a wonderful place if you’re willing to stand up for yourself,” especially if you get papers and vote Democrat.
Connolly’s narrative is loaded with Irish phrases (Coley is illiterate and prefers to speak only Irish), so the glossary will be necessary. Scenes with real political figures conspiring and making speeches add timely drama, and Irish jokes add great humor. And McCaffrey was right. “Slainte ‘gus saol fada!”

SECOND GROWTH by Ruth Moore; Islandport Press, 2021; 355 pages, $17.95; ISBN 978-1-952143-23-5.


When comic Jerry Seinfeld quipped: “There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family” he must have just finished reading Ruth Moore’s novel, “Second Growth,” a complex and grim portrayal of Maine families struggling in 1959-1960.
Noted as one of Maine’s most endearing writers, Ruth Moore (1903-1989) wrote 14 novels between 1943 and 1979.  “Second Growth” is her eighth novel originally published in 1962. Islandport Press has obtained permission to republish her works, a triumph that will please fans of well-crafted fiction with sharp characters, painful conflicts and vivid atmosphere. And Moore will not disappoint.
This may well be her darkest tale as the people of Hillville, Maine face the town’s rapid economic decline with anger, frustration, despair and hopelessness, and the resulting fractures of families, friends and business relationships. There is little to cheer about in Hillville. Moore also injects mystery, suspense, violence, greed and blackmail, blended with compassion, redemption and the sobering satisfaction of seeing people get exactly what’s coming to them.
Pay close attention to the first 27 pages for they set the tone for everything that follows. When Doctor Garland finds an abandoned baby boy he makes a fateful decision that will affect everyone, especially greed- and anger-driven Amos Wilkinson, a brutal tyrant whose violent temper is shameful and destructive. A loving daughter returns home to be shunned, a wife lives in fear, a seemingly dotty old aunt puts on an act to confound and thwart her tormenter, the town drunk makes a grisly discover and nobody knows. And the widowed owner of the town’s last fish-packing plant makes a decision that surprises and confuses everyone.
Moore’s deft handling of multiple plotlines is nicely combined with a refreshing romance and other positive examples of Hillville’s chance at second growth.
Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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