“Fiona’s Lace” by Patricia Polacco
I have always found family history stories fascinating; the tales of how one generation stands on the shoulders of another.
Many of Patricia Polacco’s picture books have a very personal bent to them as she tells stories of teachers and others that have influenced her life for the better.
There is a keen interest in researching family ancestry of late and Ms. Polacco, whose great- great-grandmother, Fiona, came to America from a small ”’village not far from Limerick, Ireland,” has quite the tale to tell.
It is a story of courage within a family of simple Irish folk, the talent of the making of lace passed from one generation to the next, how that talent helps romance to blossom, the way in which the making of beautiful lace enables the family to thrive financially as they travel to America, and how that talent eventually helps them find one another during a devastating fire.
Your young reader will meet the Hughes family from Limerick, with mother and father, Annie and Mick, and their daughters Fiona and Ailish.
Patricia Polacco’s art is awash in a palette of bright watercolors from the opening pages done with broad strokes of paintbrush green, enlivening the picturesque Irish countryside with a town ringed round with thatched cottages reminiscent of John Ford’s paean to Ireland called “The Quiet Man.”
Sitting around the cozy kitchen table, Fiona asks her Da how he got Muther to marry him. thinking her the most lovely of lasses, he begins his quest:
“So I asked all the other girls in her parlor where she lived so’s I could come a-callin’ and spark her. But not one of them would tell me. One day as I left the mill, I noticed a lovely little bunch of lace tied to a bush just down the lane. I could see other little bits of lace tied to trees, bushes, front stoops, and lampposts further on. I recognized her lace, so, So I followed it down the paths and lanes until they stopped just in front of a darlin’ little cottage. I looked further on an saw no more of ’em….so I knew this was your muther’s house.
Twasn’t more than a fortnight that I stated courtin’ your mum. We were married right here at St. Timothy’s and I brought me bride home to this very house.”
And so commences Ms. Polacco’s story of the beginnings of the family Hughes, the mother Annie, one of the finest lace makers in all of Limerick, and how she passes the talent on to her daughter Annie.
Ms. Polacco manages to finely weave into the story of her own Irish immigrant family’ journey to find a better life in Chicago, the story of many other who were initially disillusioned with the unbelievable tales of American riches:
“Fiona, in America servants have servants of their own. The streets are paved with gold and we shall live in a fancy house.”
That mythic imagining comes to a cruel halt as they initially see the elegance of Chicago with its grand buildings and women clothed in lovely frocks, but as the driver takes them to a dilapidated flat on Dekonen Street, reality sets in as they survey the rickety flat which will be home.
The realization that the rich family that paid their passage from Ireland will charge them rent for the flat and also charge for uniforms until the passage is paid in full, necessitates quickly the need for second jobs in order to live.
With Mick at the slaughterhouse and Annie scrubbing laundry at a hotel, life seems mean.
But, lest young readers become disheartened, fortune smiles on the Hughes family as Fiona’s lace is seen by a posh Chicago dress making house that will pay handsomely for all she can make.
And finally, the lace continues to reunite the Hughes family as bits of it, tied to pillar and post leads them to one another in the midst of the horrible fire that consumed Chicago.
Just as it brought Mick and Annie together, it again helps unite the Hughes family unit and makes it whole once more with bits of Irish lace as a guidepost and Fiona’s quick thinking.
Ms. Polacco has captured in vivid color and narrative the story of her Irish ancestry. And she leaves a wonderful closing amid the two back boards of her book and written within a beautiful representation of Fiona’s lace:
“I keep Fiona’s lace framed in an honored place in my home. But, actually, it fills a hallowed place in my heart.
Then I find myself thankin’ the Laird, and I remember, just as Annie charged her two daughter, that home is where the heart resides, and it will remain there as long as those I love are remembered.”
Ms. Polacco’s books are full of lessons learned, adversity overcome and the very important skill set young readers need to hear and take to heart, that everything worthwhile usually involves hard work and patience.
Endurance and love can overcome much in life…if we have the courage and fortitude not to allow challenges in life to defeat us.
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