*Note* This review may contain spoilers.
How does a person begin to describe a book that had such a profound influence on them they haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for days. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I’m going to give it my best attempt. Let me begin by saying this: If you pay attention to nothing else I have ever said or ever will say, please listen to this. I cannot recommend a book more highly. It is a story of a downtrodden girl with a fierce will to survive. Martha Long, the author of this book, says she suppressed the little girl she once was, trying to forget the nightmare that was her past. She wrote her life story as a means to show her children where she–and thus, they–came from. It must have taken a lot of courage to allow the haunting memories of her past come flooding to the surface in order for Martha Long to write this gripping memoir. She wrote the story as “Little Martha,” allowing her to tell the story in her own words. For one who suffered so greatly, she writes with a great deal of understanding and compassion, depicting her mother and “stepfather” as flawed rather than evil. The fact she survived to adulthood is, in itself, a miracle. Martha didn’t just survive, though. She thrived. Her childhood proved to be a horrible existence,but she came through on the other side with her strength, resolve, and even her sense of humor intact. Martha Long is an inspiration. Her story should be heard by many and should cause each and every person who reads it to examine themselves and their situation and be grateful for what they have. Even little things like a clean, warm bed to sleep in and food to eat. Seemingly insignificant things most people take for granted.
Martha Long wasn’t so lucky as a child. Born to a sixteen-year-old girl in Dublin, Martha Long’s childhood started out hard and progressively got worse. The story begins with Martha and her mother living in a room with her Aunt Nelly and cousin Barney. Nelly has a perpetual problem of drinking away the rent money, and eventually leaves for England with Barney, leaving Sally and Martha alone to find their own way.
Sally gives birth to another child, Charlie, before becoming involved with the monster called Jackser, a maniacal alcoholic coward who thrives on making Martha and Charlie suffer. His power was derived from the fear of those who were physically weaker than he. He regularly beats Martha and Charlie leaving them with injuries they were lucky to survive. Physical abuse wasn’t the only abuse Martha endured. The title of the book is derived from an incident involving Jackser and a man willing to pay him enough for some cigarettes in exchange for taking advantage of Martha. Even Martha’s mother, Sally, is not immune to Jackser’s fits of rage. Although the book never indicates that Sally and Jackser married, they still had a total of four children together, becoming a family of eight.
Neither Sally nor Jackser work, nor do they have any intentions of doing so. They get by on the Irish equivalent of welfare and rarely have the money needed to get the messages (buy the groceries) or pay the rent. When they did manage to scrape up a little money, Jackser usually ended up spending it at the pub. Due to their inability to pay rent, the family moved from tenement to tenement, sometimes the entire family being forced to sleep in the same bed. The conditions of their homes was always deplorable, smelling of urine and beds infested with hoppers (fleas). The children rarely bathed and were constantly infested with lice.
As Martha aged, she started to devise ways to earn a little money to help the family get by. One time she made the mistake of stealing butter and selling it to people for slightly less than it could be purchased at the supermarket. Once Jackser found out what she did and got a look at the money she produced, Martha was “promoted” to breadwinner of the family. Martha’s butter theft became more and more frequent and higher and higher in quantity. She was a regular at the police station, being caught for stealing on several occasions. After numerous charges of theft, she is finally punished and sent to live at a convent. The judge sensed the intelligence Martha had, which only needed a little education–something Martha had not been able to receive–to make her blossom to her full potential.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the book, but I did have some reactions to the book that bear mentioning. Do not go into this book thinking it’s going to be a light, easy read. It most certainly is not. There are parts of this book that I had to stop and put it down because I didn’t think I could take one more bad thing happening to that poor little girl. It leaves the reader desperately reading page after page searching for something good to happen to this unfortunate child. There are occasions where Martha meets good people and is cared for. Good things do happen occasionally for her, but as a whole, her life is one hellish experience after another.
When I first started reading the book, I noticed right away it was written in dialect. I tend to shy away from books written in dialect for reasons I couldn’t explain. I just do. In this instance, however, I think writing the book in little Martha’s uneducated, feisty Dublin accent is essential to getting to know her. Being American, there were several words and expressions I had never heard before, but this did not take away from the power and poignancy of this story. It didn’t take long for this yank to catch on to the Dub slang.
This book will quite possibly leave you emotionally drained from time to time, and I do not mean that in a bad way. It is a story worth reading and a story that very much needs to be heard. Many of us–especially in the United States–tend to live in a bubble, shutting out a world full of people who are homeless, starving, and in need of a helping hand. If nothing else, this book should make you think twice next time you’re presented with the opportunity to help someone in need and consider letting the chance pass you by. Many people turned a blind eye to Martha and other children suffering great pain and injustice in Ireland. People knew it was happening but chose to ignore it. Many people of higher social status looked on the likes of Martha as trash, not worth the effort to provide them with help. Because they chose to ignore the problem happening right in front of their faces, many people missed the chance to realize Martha was actually an upstanding individual just trying to make her way in the world the best she knew how.
This is an attitude taken by many Americans especially. Homeless people and those less fortunate are often viewed as lazy and not worth taking time to help. We don’t know these people’s situations. Why they are in the condition they are in. How they ended up on the streets. Why they’re unable to find employment and support themselves. This book taught me personally not to judge ANY book by its cover. There could be many more Marthas out there being ignored by society just needing a hand up to help them become productive citizens. It taught me EVERY person has value, whether they’re the CEO of a major company or a homeless person living under a bridge. No one deserves to be abused, ignored, or treated unkindly.
To my overseas readers, namely in the UK, you probably know all about this book and this incredible lady; however, to my American readers, you may or may not have heard of Martha yet. This book was only recently released here in the United States. If you read no other book this year, be sure to read this one. It can be purchased online at amazon.com or at Barnes & Noble. Once you finish reading it, you will be left wanting more. Not to worry, she has written five more books and another book is due out in September of this year. Only Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes can be purchased in stores in the United States at this time, but if you can’t wait for the rest of the books to be released, they can be purchased through amazon.com. According to Seven Stories Press, the books American publisher, Martha will be brought over to the States in February 2014 for a book tour. I for one am eagerly anticipating this event and hope the tour brings her within easy travelling distance to my little corner of the country.
So, here’s hoping you take my advice and read this book. I think you’ll be glad you did. And do me a favor. If you do read it, be sure to pass it on to a friend. Let’s get Martha’s popularity in the United States to explode. There is no more deserving person. Cheers and happy reading!
Ways to Connect with Martha Long:
*Disclaimer* This review is a personal interest, personal opinion blog. I was not asked nor paid to write it, nor am I connected to Martha Long in any way other than being a fan of an outstanding author.