Article updated December 18
“Chesca and the Spirit of Grace” by Lara O’Brien, youth fiction (8-12). Copyright 2013 by Lara O’Brien. Published by SleighFarm Publishing Group, Hudson, Mass. 309 pages in softcover available at Amazon and other online booksellers. E-books are available for Kindle, Nook, iPad and other reader platforms.
Ireland has always been known for having the magic, so you won’t be arching your eyebrows as you follow the emerging life of Chesca O’Brien, the 11-year-old protagonist in “Chesca and the Spirit of Grace,” the debut novel from Island resident and native Irish Woman Lara O’Brien.
Ms. O’ Brien uses the lore around Grace O’Malley, a real woman pirate who lived in 16th century Ireland, to drive this story of a young girl struggling to save the family farm and to learn about the world in the process.
To learn more, bring your young reader to a launch event sponsored by the author from 12 noon to 2 pm on December 14 at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts in the Point Way Inn, 104 Main St., Edgartown. The event includes Irish music courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School student Violet Southwick, and an author book signing.
Some overview of the Grace O’Malley era in Ireland: Like most significant events in Ireland, it involved the British. Queen Elizabeth I was on the British throne, and was perennially at war, about to be at war, or planning a war with France or Spain. Ireland was run by regional clans, notably the O’Briens and the O’Malleys, who were, um, enthusiastic about not living under English rule. Poor Elizabeth had bigger fish to fry and was nettled by the need to sidetrack troops and material to handle the “Irish problem.”
Deals were struck with various clans, which swore allegiances to the Queen in return for certain rights, like privateering — legal piracy. The deals weren’t worth the parchment on which they were written (though if you’ve got an original, Sotheby’s would want to talk with you).
Alliances shifted, broke, and coalesced at a dizzy pace. The emergence of Grace O’Malley as a heady, daring pirate, who defied both gender convention and ther family by going to sea on her own account, became the stuff of legend. Grace is said to have had a one-on-one sit-down with Elizabeth II to sort a few things out, unheard of in those days, and, truth be told, for several hundred years thereafter in Ireland.
Now, Ms. O’Brien has combined the legend of the spirited Grace O’Malley into a current-day phantasmagorical tale of talking animals and an 11-year-old free spirit, comfortable with four-legged friends but not with two-legged ones.
One friend, a horse named Malley, is a direct descendant of a horse owned by Grace O’Malley. Malley roams free on the headlands of Mowth. He is the leader of the animal world in his domain and its culture-keeper. Malley fills Chesca in on the O’Malley legend and the can-do spirit of Grace, and not a moment too soon, for the bank man has come for the financially-teetering family farm in Howth (a real coastal peninsula about 10 miles from Dublin), with an eye to putting up a snappy development for the gentry, complete with a casino.
As luck would have it, the author herself grew up on a family farm in Howth, which was sold a decade ago with the proviso that the buyer keep it a farm. The buyer then flipped it to a developer. However, the plan to build 52 houses on the land has been fought by the community and denied to date.
Ms. O’Brien has woven a strong garment here that works, whether or not you know Irish history. She delivers dialog in the lilty Irish speech patterns that let you hear the voices. Her fabric includes a little girl who is different from the other kids and won’t toe the social line, despite her Ma and Da’s best efforts to teach social conformity. She is happiest with her four-legged friends.
But life intrudes and Chesca, informed by the legend of Grace O’Malley, takes up the battle to save the family farm. Her efforts allow her to see the value of friendship and the power of community and to experience the real world in that she learns that some people are good, some are not, and that many will respond to leadership and noble ideas — the spirit of Grace.
As I read more children and young adult authors like Ms. O’Brien, I am grateful for their messaging. Our kids live in a world in which adults are too often overwhelmed or seem scared to the point of apathy about our prospects for effecting positive social change.
As children, we got the message that we could make a difference, but the message often seems lost in the shouting today. Perhaps we grownups don’t believe that change-making is possible anymore.
But the importance of the individual is an important message to teach, even if we reach back 500 years to the Grace O’Malleys to do it.
Book Launch Party with author Lara O’Brien, 12 noon–2 pm, Saturday, Dec. 14, Noepe Center for Literary Arts, The Point Way Inn, Edgartown.
A previous version of this article incorrectly refered to Queen Elizabeth I as Queen Elizabeth II.