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Born into the Squalor of Hell's Kitchen - an Editorial Review of "O'Toole"

Book Blurb:

Five Points NYC mid-19th Century

Finnegan O'Toole. Born into the squalor of Hell's Kitchen he becomes one with it. It takes a war and a railroad...and a wrench him away. Johanna. Immigrant. Determined to rise from within the quagmire of poverty, she will face a paralyzing decision: which of the two men who love her will she follow?

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Editorial Review:

Finnegan O'Toole, one of the quartet of main players in this lengthy family epic, is New York City born and bred. Born to an Irish immigrant family in the year 1835, he is raised in the squalor and crime of the city's notorious 'Hell's Kitchen' in the 'Five Points' district. This area, as viewers of 'The Gangs of New York' will recall, is a lawless place of poverty and squalor and given over to violent crime and the rule of the gangs. Indeed, Finnegan as a very young boy attracts the interest of the notorious and predominantly Irish 'Dead Rabbits' gang for his precocious skills at pick pocketing. 'Fingers' Finnegan O'Toole seems to pass his childhood and adolescence, feisty and gifted with the blarney, in a whole series of petty crimes and violent gangland encounters, principally with the Bowery Boys, a militantly anti Irish grouping of thugs. He is truly on his own when his widowed mother Bridie is killed in one of the many fires that frequently beset teeming New York City!

''Neither Bridie nor the other tenants were counted among the casualties at the dawn of the new day. Their bodies were not found, and so no burial was needed. As tears streaked through the dried blood on Finnegan's face, he rummaged through the still smoking rubble for some sign of his mother. He lifted a tubular iron head board and thought it was part of the bed on which he had been conceived. Then, as he dropped the headboard back onto the ashes, he saw it. The green bottle. Picking it up, he blew off the ashes, pocketed the bottle, and walked home......''

This green bottle has a curious history and a totemic and almost mystical significance. Over a century earlier an old native Indian woman of the fast diminishing Mansee tribe of Manhattan is given a bottle of ''True Daffy Elixir'' - a cure all medicine of the time - by a Dutch sailor and admirer. Mourning the loss of her people and her land to these Dutch arrivals, she has her name inscribed on parchment by her admirer and she places it deep inside the bottle and flings it into a pond to claim ownership. This bottle is subsequently discovered by Finnegan's father Patrick Murphy O'Toole, who has been involved in the task of draining the pond as part of one of New York's many building programmes. He gives it to his love, Bridie as a gift. [''I'd be giving you emeralds to match yer green Irish eyes if I had them.''] This old and ordinary green bottle remains a treasured possession, jealously guarded by Finnegan and Johanna thereafter.

Finnegan eventually finds regular [and back breaking] work as a longshoreman on the Docks on the river. One night after work and in a grimy and squalid bar he makes the acquaintance of a newly arrived young immigrant named Sean McGillicuddy, driven from his native Ireland by the ''Gota Mór' or 'Great Hunger' - the infamous potato famine in which a calculated one million of the Irish died and a further million emigrated, overwhemingly to the United States. With him Sean has brought the only survivor of his family, his very young, timid and dependent sister, Johanna McGillicuddy, not yet in her teens and upon whom much of the narrative of ''O'Toole'' comes to rest. Ever the concern of her brother Sean and the object of growing interest to his new drinking friend Finnegan, the girl first finds employment as a dairy maid in conditions a world apart from the milking of cows back home in Ireland. As with descriptions of New York elsewhere in the book, the description of the cows is not for the faint-hearted! It is 1863, and the Union has been at war with the Confederate States for well over a year. An increasingly politically minded Sean is motivated enough to volunteer and is kind enough to volunteer Finnegan too for service in the Heavy Artillery, though unbeknownst to him! In the meantime, he worries for his sister. A chance acquaintance arranges for Johanna to get employment at the very large and very up to date St Nicholas Hotel - full board and lodging included. Here she is run ragged as a general maid before it is suggested that her blossoming good looks would be better deployed in the Hotel's barbershop.

''Johanna felt a strange discomfort in the barbershop. She was used to being around men, but these were different. The men she was accustomed to flew drunken curses across whiskey-splashed round tables. They openly displayed their passion. Their hungry lips explored the necks of bawdy women on their laps. Their probing fingers reached up under their dresses. In the barbershop, however, she felt the patrons' lust as an undercurrent, and she saw it in the reflected images of the tall mirrors. It didn't feel so honest.....''

And it is here that she first attracts the attention of a person who will prove to be a very important person in her life and also in the book! This is Mr Jeffrey Whitehurst. At first glance, the man presents the classic image of the habitual 'roué'. Aged forty, in his prime, but entering middle aged and married, he is suave and assured, well travelled and cultivated. An architect with a specialist delight in working with wrought iron in the French Second Empire style, he is working on construction projects in Broadway - less than a mile from the St Nicholas Hotel. He is, classically, the very man likely to take advantage of a young and inexperienced Irish girl lately arrived in the Big City. His infatuation, however, is far from some passing fancy. It proves to be a longstanding, hopeless and abiding love and for which he makes truly difficult sacrifices and long term commitments; knowing full well - but nonetheless hoping - that this love and devotion can never be fully returned! He will always be there to support and assist throughout - like some Romantic Knight in a Medieval 'chanson'. He does have stiff opposition, of course, in the shape of Finnegan O'Toole.

Finnegan, for his part, is largely missing in the earlier parts of this ''ménage a trois'', caught up as he is in the terrible conflict of the American Civil War. It is March 1865. He has been on active service for over a year now with the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, now acting in the capacity of an infantry force in the long lines between Richmond and St Petersburg in Virginia. He has seen action, and he has killed. At night he is beset by images of death and memories of his past and feckless life. Soon he will go into action once more, an action of which, back in New York, Johanna, now fully involved with the persistent Whitehurst, has a premonition.

''After Finnegan's dreams, sleep was elusive. He felt vulnerable then. So small as he looked up at the stars. So insignificant. Only his ritual then, and he didn't give a damn about the teasing he took for it in the morning. He carefully withdrew his green bottle from his sack and hugged it to his chest. Though initially cold, as his body warmed the bottle, visions slipped into his mind. The bottle became 'home'. It became his mother in Heaven, and it became New York, and even the Ireland he never saw. Sometimes when the bottle grew warm, it even became Johanna. Johanna. He was surprised that Johanna had come to mean so much to him. He fantasised about her and fell deeply asleep.....''

Running to assist his friend, Finnegan is struck down by a minie ball. It enters his calf, shattering both his tibia and fibia, and exits, leaving an even bigger exit wound. If he survives lying on the battlefield, such a wound invariably results in an amputation which, equally, he might very well not survive either. Through fortune and a whole set of circumstances he is spared this fate and is discharged, like thousands of other wounded veterans, to make his own way home as best he might. Thereafter he would always walk with a pronounced limp, one leg shorter than the other. Johanna, in the meantime, has moved out of her post at the Hotel in the punishing laundry and graduated to the Bakery. There she is learning the tricks of the trade that will stand her in such good stead in the future, both in New York and when she and Finnegan move out on the trail west that will lead them all the way to the new town of Cheyenne in Wyoming, 'The Magic CIty of the Plains'. She is momentarily alone, Whitehurst being frequently at his home in nearby Albany with his unloved wife and neglected daughter. She has been saving and feels sufficiently emboldened to move out of the Hotel and to a boarding house and where she meets the last of the book's quartet of main characters, the son of the Landlady; a very street wise and entrepreneurial young boy aged about fourteen - Cannon O'Neil. The fatherless boy is wise above his years and already involved in all manner of activities. The boy is very much struck with Johanna and appoints himself as her next protector and personal Galahad. These three men, Finnegan, Whitehurst and Cannon O'Neil wander in and of Johanna's young life but one or other of this triumvirate is always there to share the times, be they good or mostly bad. Indeed, Whitehurst and O'Neil, never the first in Johanna's affections, go on to form a strong bond that is almost in its close and tender nature a father and son relationship. Johanna is never fully alone. Such as now, when Finnegan comes limping back into her life; home from the war. When next he leaves her again, for the hard life of railroad construction and starting in Omaha, Nebraska, he is one of the thousands involved in the epic task of joining the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific, thus joining the two coasts of the United States of America. He leaves her with a child in her womb, the result of a nostalgic visit to Central Park and where he has learnt that he is not the first!

In the event, whilst Cannon O'Neil is relishing a new life as a stable boy, having discovered an affinity to horses, at a race track outside New York City and Finnegan languishes in a jail in Fort Kearney in the company of an old Lakota Indian called Chetaŋ on a charge of murder and fearing the worse, Johanna changes her accommodation twice before finally moving into a Bakery run by a kindly and solicitous German Jew, Anna Schneider thus further honing her baking skills. As she moves into the last stages of pregnancy Cannon is a frequent visitor and Jeffrey Whitehurst once more glides into her orbit. It is he who, with strict instructions from the old midwife Mrs Schneider regarding proper hygiene, manouevres her through all the formalities of entering the hospital [a handsome financial donation also securing the Doctor's compliance at Mrs Schneider's injunction to use soap]. It is while waiting that Whitehurst first meets Cannon O'Neil. The two men wait impatiently for news; the start of a warm friendship.

''Johanna woke with a start. The nurse stood before her. ''You were shivering....try to drink this.''The sweetened tea warmed her, and she began to unwrap her baby to examine him. Ten toes. Ten fingers. A hand that opened and closed instinctively when she tickled his palm......Exhausted, she closed her eyes again and thought of Finnegan and her thoughts drifted to the day Sean introduced her to him. Was it so long ago? Could it only have been a few years? She remembered Finnegan's sly grin as his eyes swept over her body when Sean turned away. Her whole body had flushed with warmth as she boldly met his gaze. 'Did I love him from the start?' The baby stirred and she opened her eyes and kissed his forehead. ''Your father should be here,'' she whispered to him.''

She will name him Sean Thomas O'Toole, she decides. she will call him Tommy.

''O'Toole'' is a lengthy book and the reviewer should not fall prey to the twin perils of either summary or simplification. The plot is lively and very busy. It is also packed with secondary characters who each have their own role to play in the narrative. The principal three male characters are constantly entering and exiting the insecure world of Johanna McGillicuddy. In the case of Whitechurch, this is the result of either losing contact with Johanna or the pull of his wife Delia and his daughter back in Albany. Cannon is there through his touching devotion to her, laced with a personal admiration for Finnegan. Finnegan is, well, simply Finnegan. He is a figure riddled through with contradictions and prejudices and an abiding and utter love and devotion towards Johanna. He is very much a figure of his place and time as he returns to New York and flirts dangerously with crime with his old 'dead rabbits' associates before leaving for the West once more; the intention being to create a new life for them, following the railroad construction gangs and selling them fried donuts - [ ''Donuts, Johanna thought, ''always donuts''] thereby making sufficient money to set them up in a new life in the West and far away from the grime, squalor and poverty of New York City. This is, of course, the vision, fantasy and desire of thousands, the many who, on one level, they movingly represent. At one stage we see all four of this quartet, with the addition of the baby Tommy, heading for Cheyenne, hoping for the fruition of their dreams, both collectively and individually. The author is at her finest in her evocation and descriptions of the city a more than a century and a half ago; a description that is studded with incidental historical facts. She is equally impressive in her extremely sympathetic descriptions of the native north American Indians and their fast disappearing life styles that both Finnegan and Cannon encounter in their travels. The author, Florence D'Angelo, is to be congratulated for a book that is extraordinary in its summation of the courage, aspirations and tenacity of the times.

One evening Finnegan and Johanna rest in their journey by the South Platte river near to Fort Sedgewick. He is worried about her and suggests a pause in their long and arduous journey. He says that he doesn't want anything to happen to her:

''You need me to make donuts,'' she said sleepily. ''Is that what you think? That I care about the money more than you?'' She didn't mean that, or at least she didn't think she meant that, and so she apologised. Sometimes, though, she wondered. Who had decided to go west? Whose idea was it to make the donuts to sell? She didn't remember, but she didn't think that it was hers. It really did not matter, she supposed, because here they were, and she would make the best of it. Besides, the sun felt so warm! Because her body was cooled from the water she leaned up against Finnegan, and, in the peacefulness of the moment, she told him that she loved him and then fell asleep with his arm around her shoulders. Finnegan could not relax, of course. Not with Tommy scrambling around and heading for the river. ''Tommy!'' he yelled. Recognising his name, the toddler stopped, looking towards Finnegan, and smiled. Then he fell to his knees and quickly crawled in the opposite direction. ''He's my son alright.''


“O'Toole” by Florence D'Angelo receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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