Kathleen: the Celtic Knot

Author: Siobhan Parkinson

Illustrator: Troy Howell

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting: Dublin, Ireland, 1937


At twelve, Kathleen is the eldest of her sisters, and when her mother has to attend a birth (she's the area's unofficial midwife) or her sometimes-employed father is busy looking for or going to work, she often has to run the household. But she's new to it, and doesn't have it fully down yet. The mother superior at her Catholic school notices, and after a meeting with Kathleen's mother, gets her father a parttime job assisting the elderly gardener, and has Kathleen enroll in line dancing classes. Some of  Kathleen's snobby classmates are in it, and lie to her that it's free, causing a lot of embarrassment when the teacher asks for payment at the end of class. Thanks to her father's new job, she can pay for the one class, but it would be too much to pay for further ones, which is a shame because Kathleen really enjoyed her lessons and she's naturally talented at line dancing.

The teacher noticed Kathleen's talent, and offers one term of lessons for free, thinking that if Kathleen excels enough her family can reach some sort of payment arrangement. Kathleen is even going to be in a competition! But her excitement fades when she learns she'll need a dance costume, something she knows her family can't afford. Inspired by the story of St. Bernadette, Kathleen prays a novena (a series of prayers said over nine days) to her asking for a dance costume. When one of the nuns finds out that Kathleen wants something so trivial, she's enraged--fortunately, she only finds out on the last day of the novena. But no dress materializes, so Kathleen decides the nun was right that she should only pray for important things and not bother God or the saints about little ones.

However, Kathleen's mother finds out about the competition, and right away says that she has her eye on some blue fabric at a store--if someone buys just a bit more, there will be enough of a remnant to buy the needed yardage at a discount. It's blue fabric, not green like it should be, but Kathleen knows better than to press the issue. The important things is that she can compete.

Of course it's not as simple as that. Kathleen's mother comes down with something serious, and another customer buys the entire bolt of fabric. Kathleen's aunt Polly comes to the rescue: she reassures Kathleen that her mother is well-loved by the neighborhood for her services, and will recover (although Kathleen still worries that her mother has tuberculosis), and, inspired by Gone with the Wind, they can make a proper green outfit from Polly's curtains. When the dress is finished, Kathleen's mother even has enough energy to embroider a Celtic knot design on it. She continues recovering slowly but surely.

At the competition, Kathleen discovers that the snobby girls have matching outfits made of the blue fabric. One also says very loudly that she heard Kathleen's is made from curtains, but Kathleen ignores her--it's the best way to deal with the girl. She focuses on getting ready, telling St. Bernadette that she doesn't expect to win or even dance well. She just doesn't want to fall over. And because she is the main character, she wins, securing a spot in the class.

Back home, Polly has a surprise: she's brought a cake to celebrate. And it looks like a wedding cake. Despite how often she and Kathleen talked about being old maids together, she's getting married in a few days (because Lent is coming and they can't get married during those six weeks) and moving to America. Kathleen is a little hurt by this, but also excited for her aunt. She's more excited for herself though, thinking about how she'll travel all over with line dancing.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

When the Great Depression hit Ireland, many of its citizen were already poor, thanks to decades of politic and economic turmoil. But even in the midst of their troubles, the Irish found opportunities to relax, like music, dance, and drama competitions. These competitions, especially Irish line dancing, are found all over the world today. Ireland is split in two, part of the island self-governing and part of it under the crown of England. The conflicts between the two sides has grown bloody from time to time, but lately (at least at the time of publishing), less so. Ireland values its children, requiring them to be educated until at least age 16. Many girls continue to college, and sometimes politics: Ireland has had two women serve as president so far.


Dedicated to "the 1930s generation: to my father and in memory of my mother; to all my aunts and uncles." Acknowledgements go to Fr. Benedict Cullen, of the Capuchin Order, and to Peter Pearson, artist and historical historian, "for help with locating visuals on the Father Mathew Hall. Thanks also to my dad, Harry Parkinson, whose first-hand experience of life as a child in Ireland in the 1930s was invaluable."

The author grew up in Ireland, but in the 1960s when life was easier than depicted in the books. She notes, however, that people still talked, joked, and believed much the same as they had three decades prior.

I like how Kathleen's father demonstrates where the stars "go" during the day: he lights a candle so Kathleen can see how much dimmer it appears in sunlight than in the dark, just as the sun's light washes out the weaker starlight.

Aunt Polly is really Aunt Mary, but thinks her given name is too everyday. She's only twenty, and very fun to be around. Kathleen considers her a close friend.

One of my cousins did Irish line dancing. Unlike Polly and Kathleen, she hates Gone with the Wind. She says it's the most boring book she's ever read.

Polly gets a cigarette craving, but since she's in Ireland, asks for a fag, which jumps out even though I know it's slang for cigarette.

With Polly reconsidering a cigarette (she only smokes part if it) and not eating much plus the neighbor girl having a baby out of wedlock in the first chapter, it seemed like she might be pregnant, but there was no such reveal. Plus the dangers of cigarettes weren't well known yet.

My parent's wedding date was influenced by Lent too. It was first Friday after Easter (the first Saturday was already booked). Catholics can marry during Lent now, but not on certain days like Good Friday.

Does the glossary in the back of the book really need to define porridge?

No comments: