Small things can contain worlds.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is literally small. 114 pages of a fairly large font, you’d be right to call this a novella. I read it cover to cover in a sitting.
The lives Ms. Keegan portrays here are also small. The central character, Bill Furlong, goes about his days running the small coal distributor that keeps his wife and five young daughters comfortably housed in a small Irish town in the winter of 1985.
The main action of Small Things Like These follows Bill as he goes about town, delivering coal in the final days before things close down for the Christmas holiday. I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s Ms. Dalloway where the reader follows Clarrissa around town as she buys flowers for the party she is planning. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a very well written story about an ordinary person doing ordinary things.
Along the way we learn about Bill’s childhood. Partially raised by a wealthy Protestant woman who lived alone in one of the town’s bigger houses except for a gardener and the woman who took care of the housekeeping, Bill’s mother. That she kept Bill’s mother on after she became pregnant was a minor scandal because Bill’s mother was not married. The wealthy woman more-or-less takes Bill under her wing, helps to raise him though she never really becomes family.
One part that nearly brought me to tears was the childhood Christmas when all young Bill really wanted was a 500-piece puzzle of a farm with a barn. Instead, he gets thoughtful but useful things from his mother and the gardener and, from the wealthy woman, an old copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that smells musty. It was that detail that set me off. The musty smell which Bill knows means the book came from her shelves not from the shop. This is the late 1960’s. How dear could a puzzle have been?
While he delivers coal to his customers, Bill is thinking about his own life, wondering about his father, whom he never knew during much of the book. Once he gets home, the domestic takes over. We see Bill with his daughters then later with his wife while the two plan the holiday celebration and gifts they will get for their children. All five are still young enough to write sincere letters to Santa which their parents later open and read so they can budget out what each girl will get. Never did it occur to me that my own parents probably did the same thing.
Mrs. Dalloway is brought down to earth by the death of Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I, whose suicide sets a different light on Clarissa Dalloway’s day. In Small Things Like These Bill Furlong finds a barefoot girl shivering in the coal shed of the local convent school. Modern readers will recognize her as one of the Magdalen girls sent to work in convent laundries for years because they became pregnant out of wedlock.
Unaware of what she is, Bill will try to help her, eventually making a choice that will change his life and the lives of his family. It may even change the lives of everyone in his town. Is he meant to stand for something much greater, I thought, a change in the nation of Ireland?
I’ve been thinking about this book since I read it last Sunday morning. I’m frankly surprised to learn that enough people were still heating their homes with coal to support a local distributor in 1985. Bill Furlong is not rich by any means, but his business does well enough to support his family and several employees. Ireland certainly has come a long way since then.
The Magdalen Laundries are not news to me. What did surprise me, and Bill for that matter, was that basically everyone knew about them, all of the women in town at least. Knew about them and either profited from them or kept silent, grateful their own families had not ended up in one. It took someone like Bill to make a choice to do a small thing, to rescue one girl. Lots of someone’s probably before the last Magdalen Laundry closed in 1996.
It would be easy to judge, but a few days after reading this book I saw this article about a young woman in Alabama, forced to bear her child in prison because she had a marijuana charge on her record instead or releasing her on bail. To keep her from using drugs while pregnant, she was forced to sleep on the floor of a prison cell nearly losing her baby in the process. Progress has been made since 1996, but not enough yet.
My spouse, Paul, pointed out to me that Small Things Like These is a nativity story. Set largely on Christmas eve, the book ends with a man escorting a very poor young woman through town as everyone basically turns their backs on the two…no room in the inn. It’s a good point, and one I should have noticed what with my masters in English lit and all. A reminder that we don’t have to do much to do the “Christian thing,” to take better care of each other.
Then today, just before writing this, I read on Twitter that the people of Martha’s Vinyard met a group of refugees dumped there unannounced by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis with compassion. Some fifty refugees were flown from Texas and simply left on the streets to score a political point or two. Fortunately, the church they were dumped in front of acted exactly the way I would want a church to act, provided shelter and food.
From the article on MassLive.com: “I’ve watched people come and go from all walks of life, bringing food,” she said. “I watched a young man come by with a garbage bag, I think he had fishing poles, bringing clothes. I watched them trying clothes on in the street.”
As of this writing, the people of Martha’s Vineyard are helping the refugees find work and permanent housing.
So, I’m still trying not to judge. Would I be like Bill Furlong or the wealthy woman who provided a job and a home for him and his mother? like those bringing clothes to refugees in Martha’s Vineyard? These small things are very important if you ask me
2 thoughts on “I Almost Cried Three Times. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan”
I understand exactly what you’re saying. It sounds an important little book. Have you read This is Happiness by Niall Williams? Another wonderful Irish tale.
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