review post

A book about a culture you are unfamiliar with

“You’re never free in a house, you’re in prison. You’re always trying to keep everyone happy. When you go out your door, you don’t know whether your neighbour will be civil or not.”

Jubilee was not interested in coming out of her bed for photos

Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman by Sharon Gmelch

Star rating: ★★★ ☆☆ 3/5 stars

Summary: Nan is the story of an Irish Travelling woman born in 1919. The book is written by an anthropology student who met Nan and was told her story first hand. It’s a sad story about an uneducated woman who didn’t get much say in her life.

Reasons for picking this book: I needed a book for a culture I’m not familiar with. I did some brainstorming on cultures I’d like to learn more about, I thought of Irish Travellers and did a Google search to see what books I could find and I found a description of this book.

Review: I went back and forth on whether to rate this or two or three stars. While the story was very interesting it was also super depressing everything that happened to Nan so I can’t say I enjoyed the book. But to rate a non-fiction book on whether the subject was upsetting seems unfair. (Hence why I usually don’t read nonfiction.) Still I really hated the style this was written in. Gmelch kept inserting herself, explaining what was happening or summing up things for the reader. It was wildly unnecessary, it honestly felt like she was trying to show off and it came off pretentious.

For example, Gmelch writes: “Regrettably for Nan, her days at Gretton House were coming to an end. She was forewarned of this late one night when she heard something outside the small dormer window of her attic bedroom.” Like shit dude, we didn’t need you to tell us that– in about two paragraphs Nan says that herself like we can figure it out we don’t need you. It just bugged me because she kept interrupting the story to add needless crap like this. Your readers are a lot smarter than you seem to think.

I sort of wished I could have found something more contemporary on Irish Travellers. This book was published in 1986 and Nan told her story to Gmelch in the 70s so I kinda of wish I could read something like this on Irish Travellers from now. Because one of the points in this book is how drastically life was changing for them, so how has it progressed?

God every time Nan had her children taken from her my heart broke, she really had no choice in a lot of her life. Her abusive husband Mick was terrible and she knew she shouldn’t go back to him every time but she did because what else was she supposed to do? I lost count of how many children she had at fourteen, like it was insane– I can’t even imagine what that does to your body to have child after child like that.

So much tragedy happened to Nan and several times I just had to put the book down and walk away. It was just too much. Like when her son Martin dies, that really messed me up because the doctors sent him home to her KNOWING he was about to die and they didn’t say anything. In fact the nurse kept trying to convince Nan how healthy he was. How fucked up is that? It’s one thing to lose a child but for the doctors to withhold information like that is just downright cruel.

I think it was an interesting window into Irish Traveller life. How they basically had to know how to do anything and everything to make money to survive. If something didn’t work out they could always pack up, go somewhere else and start a totally different line of work. Gmelch kept pointing out that Nan’s life was different than the average Traveller but didn’t offer many reasons as to how. Although like I said before, I wish Gmelch would have just shut up and given us Nan’s story without interrupting.

I eventually had to just power through and finish the book in one sitting otherwise I was never going to finish. The combination of Gmelch and her obnoxious writing and the tragedy that was Nan’s life made it a hard book for me.

Up next: A Shadow Bright and Burning – a book set on an island


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