Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: Seek the Fair Land


Book Review: 'Seek the Fair Land' by Walter Macken

4 / 5 Stars

Here at the PorPor Books Blog, we like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by reviewing or showcasing a fiction or nonfiction book that deals with Ireland and the Irish.

For St. Patrick’s Day 2018, we’re reviewing Seek the Fair Land, a historical novel by Walter Macken (1915 – 1967), an Irish novelist and playwright. His 1950 novel, Rain on the Wind, was a Literary Guild selection in the US and brought him renown. Macken wrote Seek the Fair Land (1959) as the first book in what was eventually a trilogy, including The Silent People (1962), set in Ireland during the Famine, and The Scorching Wind (1966), about the struggle for independence in the early 20th century. Macken died of a heart attack at age 51 (he was a heavy smoker).

This Pan Books paperback edition of Seek the Fair Land (300 pp.) was published in 1962. The cover artist is uncredited.

The novel's backstory is based on genuine historical events. Seek the Fair Land opens in September 1649, with the English army of Oliver Cromwell laying siege to the Irish city of Drogheda. Among the defenders is Dominick MacMahon, a young man with a family, and a reluctant soldier at best. When Cromwell’s army overwhelms the city’s defenders, and orders his troops to raze the city to the ground and slaughter its people, MacMahon manages to escape Drogheda with his family.

It quickly becomes apparent that Cromwell’s army seeks to convert the east of Ireland into a vassal state, and those Irishmen who do not submit are to be exterminated. Knowing that his only choice for survival is to make for Connacht province in the highlands of Western Ireland, the ‘Fair Land’ of the book’s title, MacMahon embarks on a perilous journey across the width of Ireland.

With all the roads watched by English soldiers, MacMahon is obliged to travel through the wilderness, seeking shelter among the swamps and forests and relying on wild game for sustenance. Every stranger must be regarded with suspicion, and to be caught in the open by English horsemen is to risk summary execution. Will MacMahon’s friendship with an insurgent fighter named Murdoc O’Flaherty give him the slim chance he needs to secure sanctuary in the Fair Land ?

Seek the Fair Land is one of the better historical novel’s I’ve read. Author Macken lived in Connacht province, and describes its mountains, lakes, and meadows with the attitude of a cinematographer. His prose is clear and direct, and the narrative moves at a very readable pace; indeed, it gives the novel a flavor more reminiscent of an adventure novel than a historical novel.

The lead character, Dominick MacMahon, is one of the ‘little people’ who serve as the protagonists in Macken’s novels. These are the salt-of-the-earth people who normally shy from danger and intrigue, but when faced with tribulation, routinely summon inner resources of courage and conviction to overcome the struggles that lay low seemingly stronger and more privileged personalities.

As the cover artwork indicates, Seek the Fair Land is not meant to be a happy book. The depredations of the English are conveyed in bleak episodes of murder and mayhem, episodes that must have seemed quite explicit back when the book first was published in 1959, and remain unsettling even to modern readers. To his credit, Macken introduces his political commentary in measured doses, usually through the medium of conversation and debate among his characters, and avoids devolving Seek the Fair Land into a diatribe.

Summing up, while I don’t read historical novels all that much, I can recommend Seek the Fair Land as one of the better entries in the genre. It has been reissued in paperback over the decades since its 1959 publication, and these are quite affordable, and available from your usual online sellers.

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