“To do a great right, do a little wrong.”
1876. An Irish orphan with a dark past, young Fiona Shanahan emigrates to America and becomes a lady’s maid to a wealthy New York socialite, a safe haven where she reinvents herself. A lucky encounter lands her a spot on the Broadway stage, where she becomes a rising star until a violent confrontation forces her to flee west to Chicago. She meets theater magnate Julius DeMonte, who offers her sanctuary as part of the troupe aboard his showboat, Queen of Dreams, on its maiden voyage down the Mississippi. As they travel southward to New Orleans, Fiona discovers the reality of post-civil war America, very different from the gilded stages of New York. But Julius is far more than a simple theater producer, just as Fiona is far more than a naïve ingenue, and as she becomes entwined in Julius’s intrigues, Fiona finds herself in greater danger than she’s ever known before.
Morris’s “Wind at Her Back” is a welcome relief from typical “immigrant woman in peril” sagas. She has created a realistic woman in young Fiona/Mary Neill, one that readers will cheer for all the way through the book. The author clearly spent considerable time researching her backgrounds and settings but blessed the reader with an exquisite vision of 20th century America without beating him over the head with it — truly a fun ride. I found myself flipping through the pages quickly to find out how Mary dealt with thieves, the betrayals of lovers and friends, and the rapidly changing social norms in theater districts of the late 1800s. No one is ever who they seem on the surface in “Wind,” and Morris makes it so much fun to find out how Mary discovers this. I can’t wait for the sequel.
With the wind at her back, Irish orphan Fiona Shanahan sets sail on the Adriatic from Cobh, Ireland leaving behind a life of sorrow and dark secrets. Kathleen Morris has created a masterpiece with her newest novel “The Wind at Her Back.” The reader is swept into the late 1800s beginning in New York where Fiona finds a safe haven. She reinvents herself becoming a lady’s maid for a wealthy socialite. As her good fortunes increase Fiona becomes more ambitious taking on a different persona to suit her purpose. Fiona’s circumstances change frequently throughout the story. Morris has created a strong gutsy, resourceful protagonist who learns early on knowledge is the ticket to her success. Books become her salvation. In the first part of the story Fiona renews a friendship with James Ardrey, a cabin-mate from the voyage over on the Adriatic. Through James’s encouragement Fiona lands a spot on Broadway playing opposite him. As their fame increases she finds a kindred spirit in James and they become an inseparable team. Under the patronage of theater magnate Julius DeMonte, Fiona and James’s story begins to spin a new web. The stage is now set for love, deceit, revenge, betrayal and danger. The theatrical world becomes a common thread throughout the rest of the story. Fleeing New York from a violent encounter, Fiona and James find themselves on the run. They find a safe haven in Chicago enjoying the social scene and all that this vibrant city had to offer. Eventually the call of the stage beckons them once more. Another chain of events forces them to acquiesce and become a part of a showboat troupe heading down the Mississippi to New Orleans. As the web of deceit tightens, the stakes become higher. Fiona becomes entwined in Julius’s intrigues and she finds herself in greater danger than she’s ever known before. One of my favorite lines in the story is from Julius. “Life takes many turns.” Each new location has a sub story as the cast of characters take on new identities. Morris’s rich descriptive sentences pay homage to her meticulous research. The time period comes alive as the reader learns more about the social mores of the times, living conditions, neighborhoods, struggles of the Irish, theatrical world and life on the Mississippi post Civil War era. Morris’s deft touch moves the action seamlessly along from one location to another. Her three main characters are well developed and become defined by their choices. Morris has a true gift of storytelling, creating a novel of intrigue and suspense. You will find this a very engaging story capturing your attention right down to the last page. Even after the story ended I found myself ruminating over details and wondering what Fiona’s next life might be like. I can only hope there might someday be a sequel.
Western Europeans made up a good many of immigration into the United States – and here we have Fiona, who has left Ireland after a very tough beginning. Forced to marry at a young age, she escapes a bad situation and learns a little more of the finer ways of life. She sets her sights on America and sails across the Atlantic, she finds herself useful to ailing passengers on the ship that end up bringing rewards. She hopes to succeed in her new country. And how she does! She is aboard a steamship, spends some time as a servant, and suddenly, through a chance meeting, she becomes an actress of renown. Life, however, finds some sour cherries in the bowl – Fiona falls into a nasty situation that requires her to leave New York and head west. She encounters more acting opportunities that find her back on ship … this time, it is a brand-new Paddle Wheel boat on its virgin voyage down the Mississippi. But again, the sour cherries appear. Her past – some of it from Ireland, some from New York, catches up with her. She finds herself in the midst of some dealings ‘under the table’ with gun runners and smugglers. Fortunately, our pretty Fiona is clever and confident and smart. Her interactions with the characters of the book reveal all these traits, and more. Her natural acting skills impress the theatre impresarios and wow the audiences. Her conversations with her acting friends and those she meets along the way are witty and bright. She finds love. She finds hate, both at a personal level and at a cultural level. She finds traitors. In the end, she becomes part of the key that settles the book into its conclusion. The settings vary so very much – a sod hut, old Irish villages, the glory of a thriving New York City. Chicago, just recovering from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and its fire, is a source of culture for Fiona. The paddle wheeler is a shiny, brand-new river craft that for its day is state of the art, right down to its jewel box of a theatre and its calliope that announces its arrival in each town. Characters abound as well – a disrespectful husband, nurses and teachers, crafty theatre producers, patrons of the arts who are secretly patrons of something other than the arts, ship captains (one who secrets that are quite interesting), fellow actors and actresses – all in a range from big-hearted people to self-centered divas that dwell only on their own value. THE WIND AT HER BACK is a trek in the life of our Irish immigrant Fiona. But there is no mistake – she is headed for surprises, intrigue and even murder as she tries to build her fruitful life in America.
The Wind at Her Back by Kathleen Morris Kathleen Morris, award-winning author, and gifted storyteller has done it again with her latest novel, The Wind at Her Back. A superb novel, this talented author brings to life the hardships and reality of a young Irish immigrant, Fiona Shanahan, fleeing Ireland and the horrors of her past. Fiona has escaped a life in Ireland filled with poverty, abuse, and tragedy to find herself on a voyage across the vast Atlantic to America. While sailing, a fortuitous encounter with a wealthy New Yorker changes Fiona’s life for the first time since being orphaned. Determined to survive the contempt many Americans at the time have for the Irish, Fiona soon realizes it’s not what she knows that will keep her safe in a foreign land, but whom she knows. At such a young age, death is not new to her, and her life becomes one of survival by any means. Landing in New York, she quickly learns whom to trust and whom to avoid. Every step of the way, finding a life of normalcy seems to elude the heroine. Each character, image, and scene is expertly detailed by the author. From being a lady’s maid to a leading lady in theaters, from falling in love to being betrayed, danger follows as she travels by riverboat down the post-Civil War Mississippi. You can’t help but fall in love with all the characters that Ms. Morris aptly depicts in this compelling novel. This is another must-read from Kathleen Morrison that is sure to please the reader.