In April 1912, seventeen-year-old Maggie Murphy is about to undertake the journey of a lifetime when her Aunt Kathleen purchases a ticket for her to travel to America onboard the Titanic.
For Maggie, the past few weeks have left her in emotional turmoil as she mourns her mother and realises she is about to be parted from her beloved Seamus. However, Maggie and Kathleen aren’t travelling alone as Kathleen’s tales of American life encourage twelve others from the village to purchase their own tickets. With a mixture of excitement and sadness, the villagers leave behind the only home they have ever known, only to meet their destiny when the Titanic hits an iceberg.
Maggie wakes up in a hospital in New York alongside other survivors but the fate of her aunt and her other travelling companions remains a mystery. As Maggie gets on with her life, she buries the memories of her ordeal deep and her family learn never to mention the subject, however when her great-grandaughter, Grace, celebrates her 21st birthday on the anniversary of the sinking in 1982, Maggie realises it is time to face up to the past.
I had a very mixed response to reading The Girl Who Came Home because there were parts of the book that I thought were very well written and other parts not so much. The biggest flaw in the book for me was the fact this is supposed to be Maggie’s story and while she does relate the events in much of the chapters, either through third person narrative or diary entries, a large chunk of the story is given over to the viewpoints of other characters like Harry, the third-class steward. Since this story is supposed to be based on Maggie’s memories, the events should have been solely related to her experiences as she can’t possibly know what all those other people were doing. It seems to me the author wanted to include as many different versions of what happened that night as she could which would’ve been fine if she hadn’t chosen to have it as Maggie’s story.
There are so many stories and dramatisations surrounding the sinking of the Titanic, it’s hard to find anything new to say but the author chooses to concentrate on third-class passengers in steerage, particularly those from the same village in Ireland. While Ballysheen is a fictitious village, the travellers are based on the real Addergoole Fourteen who left County Mayo in April 1912 to start a new life in America. Out of the fourteen villagers, only three survived the sinking, including seventeen-year old Annie McGowan who is the inspiration behind Maggie. While I knew there were many Irish onboard, I had no idea so many were lost from the same village and after reading the website which tells their story, it is easy to understand why the author was so captivated by their experiences. It is obvious the author has done a lot of research and has tried to incorporate much of the Addergoole Fourteen’s story as she can but she tries to throw in even the tiniest of details and it all gets a little too heavy-handed, particularly in regard to the doom filled forecasts.
For me, the chapters dealing with the aftermath were where this book really came into its own and I got quite emotional when the news of the disaster began to filter through and panicked relatives sought for information on their loved ones. The chapters about Frances Kenny’s search for her sister, Katie, one of the Ballysheen fourteen, are particularly poignant, although they really shouldn’t be part of Maggie’s story. The writing was a touch too sentimental at various points but I think those chapters are probably the ones that will stick in my mind more than anything else. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book concentrating on the aftermath of the disaster, in regard to how the White Star Line tried to keep the survivors quiet about what really happened and this could’ve been an interesting thread to follow.
The chapters dealing with the disaster are interspersed with how Maggie’s life is seventy years in the future, but far too much of the focus is on her great-granddaughter, Grace, who has withdrawn from life after the death of her father. I suppose Maggie’s story is supposed to be the inspiration Grace needs to start living her life again but it just distracted from the main plot. After Maggie survives, we are told next to nothing about what happened to her over the intervening years so it feels like a huge gap in Maggie’s story but there is a neat twist when we learn who Maggie eventually married but it is easy to guess so falls a little flat.
I think I would’ve enjoyed this book far more if it had been more of a straightforward telling of the Addergoole Fourteen’s experiences on the voyage and the aftermath for those who survived, along with the impact on the village rather than just concentrating on Maggie on her own.