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Immigrants Longing for the American Dream - an Editorial Review of "The Man from Burnt Island"

Book Blurb:

It was a tough life for the Scottish Sharp family at the turn of the twentieth century.

Coal miners, they were exempt from the World War I draft. Frank, the fourth of five sons, was the only one that went off to war. Luckily, he survived the trenches, only to return to poor job prospects and poorer wages.

When most of the family sailed across the Atlantic in search of a better life, Frank stayed behind for a while... for a little too long, it so happened. A victim of the 1924 Immigration Act, he was barred from immigrating to the US until October, 1929. Three weeks after his quota number came up, the stock market crash occurred.

Frank's story weaves through Detroit's rich history during the Great Depression, Prohibition, World War II, and the booming automotive industry starting in the 1950's and beyond. What Frank sacrifices to achieve material and career success takes its toll on his family and personal life. After all is said and done, this is the saga of a determined and ambitious man who was hell-bent on leaving his poverty-stricken past behind.

Did he make the right choices? You decide.

Author Bio:

Wendy Sura Thomson is a multi-award 5-star author of Summon the Tiger, The Third Order, The Man from Burnt Island, Ted and Ned, and a contributor to the anthology, Postcards from the Future. She lives in Michigan with her three beloved Setters and covets sipping coffee outdoors first thing in the morning, rain or shine, listening to the waterfall and birds, and watching [often with amusement] the pups explore.

Editorial Review:

But yer sae braw – mibbie they wull put ye elsewhere! Drawers needs

be wee, an’ yuir nae wee!”

Robert Funkie Thomson Sharp, a brawny young man from Scotland at the turn of the twentieth century, who went by the name Frank in his early years, finishes elementary school, then launches into a life motivated by poverty and prejudice.

Frank goes to war and asks his sweetheart, Margaret if he can write to her. She agrees and they exchange letters. At the end of the long war, Frank hurries to Margaret and the reader senses their pent-up passion. Margaret becomes pregnant but pregnancy before marriage in the early 1900s is such a taboo that they keep the pregnancy secret. Margaret delivers a baby girl that ultimately dies.

During the war, Frank becomes aware of the prejudice he received when speaking the dialect of Broad Scots and vows to learn the Kings English. In the next chapters, the author capably uses Frank’s dialect to lend authenticity to the development of the protagonist. Readers will become keenly aware that Frank’s progress will be judged by the way he speaks and feels the character evolution.

Frank hears talk of the easy life in America and Canada that is his for the taking. His ambition is beginning to take hold. He saves enough money to buy a ticket on the Athenia and the newlyweds set sail to Canada.

Effortlessly including ages and dates carries the reader through the story as in brother Andrew’s death, “…March 29, 1929…” and the stock market crashing in October of 1929. When John Paton Sharp is born and turns four, Frank asks Margaret and “Jackie” to speak Canadian English.

When Margaret again becomes pregnant, and it is soon apparent either the child or Margaret will die. Desperate not to lose his wife, he uses a knitting needle to perform an abortion. It causes strong bitterness afterwards within Margaret that will continue throughout their marriage. “…ye killt yer bairn and ye killt yer brother. Ah think ye love yer money more than yer folk…” This one sentence climaxes the story. Frank’s jobs come with increasing responsibility fueling his ambition even more and when another brother dies, Frank becomes “Robert” regaining his given name. Still, it takes a while for the new Robert to adopt “high society”. When their son Jackie is invited to attend the Edison Institute, Robert declares he “…is not schooled in high society ways.” It is 1940.

World War II begins and both Robert and Jack are drafted. Robert is age forty-one and goes to engineering school which magnifies his ambition. He moves Margaret multiple times, even convincing her to move to California for a short period to open a bar. She reluctantly conceding he is the “man of the house”. Robert begins to use money to try to make Margaret happy. It doesn’t work as she increasingly feels she doesn’t fit into each of Robert’s steps up the corporate ladder. Rings, cars and cabin cruiser boats aren’t the solution.

Robert increases his dependency on Dorothy, his secretary. He gives her autonomy over his affairs and even has her open a checking account in her name. She is smitten with Robert, but Robert makes it clear that he will never divorce Margaret and that he can’t give her “more”. When Robert retires and buys a marina, Dorothy comes to work for him, and Margaret accuses them of having an affair. They separate. Margaret goes to a retirement home.

I put her through so much. I should have let her be the perfect housewife. That’s what she did best.” This is when Robert fully understands what went wrong in his marriage to Margaret.

“The Man from Burnt Island” is a powerful story of an immigrant from Scotland who fulfilled his dreams of affluence and wealth but made one crucial mistake. He forgot his life partner, his wife. Carefully researched and written, the dialect at the beginning draws the reader into the story, even though at times it takes a bit to adjust to heavy Broad Scots. But the author prepares the reader for what was to come, adding, “Stick with me here: his heavy Scots accent disappears fairly early on.”

Small authentic details help the reader understand the growing strength of the protagonist beginning with the sentence in the first paragraph, “The tallest in his class, he was always positioned there.” Not only does his physical strength mature, but his mental strength surpasses men with less education and experience. Gaining momentum with each of his jobs, climbing the corporate ladder, then finally changing his name reveal Robert’s tenacity. The steadiness of his navigation of life in a new country, another culture and a different way of speaking build the reader’s empathy of a robust protagonist. As Robert’s life winds to his demise, the choices he made long ago close his life in sadness.

The life story of Robert Funkie Thomson Sharp is the shared history of millions of immigrants from all over the world who longed for the American dream and found something different. Exceptionally researched details capture the daily lives of blue-collar Scotland enhancing the picture of life, death, morality, family, youth, and age in a long-ago culture.


The Man from Burnt Island by Wendy Thomson receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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