All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnson, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, by Kathryn Miles *****

The Irish potato famine is at its worst. Blight kills all of the potatoes–my god, even the ones that had been harvested and stored away in root cellars where the families thought they could access them!–and the potato was nearly the only crop that the Irish had. Millions depended on charity (nearly nonexistent) or the government, and unspeakable numbers died, while the grain that had grown was shipped abroad as an export for sale. Local farmers who had a surviving patch of turnips or even a single cabbage had to post a guard overnight, or someone else would steal it. Unfathomable.

I was sent a free copy of All Standing as part of the Goodreads First Reads program. My gratitude goes to Goodreads and the publisher for the book, and to Miles for ferreting out the facts to tell this story properly. Research is such tedious work, and here she has done so much to tell an important story.

The first seventy pages of this story are bleak, miserable, horrible, terrible. Miles does not let us go gently. The documentation is well done, and the statistics and examples lend a special sort of dread to that which was macabre to start with. There is no way to Disney-fy a story like the famine and still have it be real history. And those who buy a place on the “coffin ships” for the small chance that they may survive the trip to the new world die in droves, primarily of typhus, though a small number are fortunate and survive.

An innovative ship builder, an experienced and humane captain, and a doctor who was ahead of his time combined to make the Jeanie Johnston exceptional. It is for this part of the story, as well as the righteous anger that serves as the transition from utter misery to success, that those who love Ireland, history, or better still, both should read this book. It is a beacon that is welcome in times such as ours, one that reminds us that one person, or two, or three who have the courage of their convictions really can make a difference to others.

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