1877, book review, feminism, frontier justice, gold mine, historical fiction, idealized character, immigrant story, Ireland, Mary Logue, Minneapolis, mystery, nineteenth century, potato famine, prostitution, realistic setting, South Dakota
Review: The Streel, by Mary Logue
U. of Minnesota, 2020. 216 pp. $23
In May 1877, Brigid Reardon, fifteen, and her sixteen-year-old brother, Seamus, leave Galway for New York. The potato blight has returned to Ireland, and the English landlord, wishing to be rid of as many tenants as possible, pays their passage.
It’s a cruel blow to Brigid, to whom family is all, but she means to make her way. And with her spirit, intelligence, and willingness to work hard, she has the resources to see it through. She also appreciates the adventure for what it is—when she has the luxury to do so.
But it won’t be easy. While Seamus and two friends seek work on the railroad in the Midwest, Brigid toils in a Brooklyn boardinghouse. By a stroke of luck, she gets a recommendation to be a maid in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the home of the wealthy Mr. Hunt, who owns mining interests.
Brigid likes her job and her employers, who seem kind, tolerant people. Their opulent lifestyle, which benefits her in dribs and drabs, amazes her:
After I had lit all thirty candles, I stood back and looked at the room. The light from the candles made the gold leaf in the plaster ceiling shine all the brighter. Like a fairy castle it was. My mother would never believe such splendor existed. I would write and try to describe it in my next letter and explain how on the feast of Thanksgiving the Americans ate more food in a day than my family had eaten in a week.
But the Hunts’ rakish, handsome son, Charlie, makes advances to Brigid that she has a hard time repelling. And when she receives a letter from home announcing her mother’s death, Brigid decides to leave St. Paul for Deadwood, South Dakota, where Seamus and his friends have put down a claim on a gold mine.
Shortly after her arrival, however, Seamus’s girlfriend, Lily, is found stabbed to death, and he was the last person to see her alive. Fearful for her brother’s safety and convinced of his innocence, Brigid urges him to flee. That looks bad, but the local sheriff is reputedly anything but just or impartial, so if Seamus sticks around, he’s likely to hang. Brigid vows to clear his name and find the real killer, despite advice from all quarters that this is no job for a woman and dangerous besides.
Since Lily’s corpse doesn’t show up until page 51, Logue takes pains to establish her protagonist’s character, the setting, and circumstances. I admire her confidence to wait, and I like how she handles the immigrant story, which seems smoother than the scenes right after the crime, in fact. But the investigation narrative soon settles in.
I do wonder at a couple facets, not least the miners’ luck at finding gold, and the modern echoes I hear behind certain stretches of dialogue. One of Seamus’s friends seems idealized too. But Logue’s storytelling carries the day.
The subplot, which deals with Charlie Hunt’s visits to Deadwood, lends force to the narrative. He’s the only other important character who has angles and edges, and Brigid can’t tell whether they make him interesting or dangerous. He’s there to dicker for the miners’ claim on behalf of his father and to resume his pursuit of her. But is he merely trying to seduce her, or does he mean what he says, a permanent connection? Her confusion and wavering opinion adds to the tension.
Her sleuthing, however, is neither particularly effective nor methodical. Rather, things happen in front of her, and she takes note, so The Streel isn’t your classic detective story. Brigid does try to interview men who might have wanted Lily for themselves, resented Seamus’s claim on her, and killed her out of jealousy. That widens the pool of suspects.
But Brigid also hears universal laughter at her claim that her brother intended to marry Lily, who, they say, was hardly the marrying kind. Brigid, though schooled in certain aspects of life, has never met a prostitute before; Deadwood’s sexual mores bewilder her in several contexts, blatant or covert.
Consequently, The Streel (the word means “harlot” in Gaelic) has much to say about propriety, a moving target in such a place, and the double standard. As an attractive young woman in a town overwhelmingly male, Brigid draws attention, not always flattering, especially when the less polite citizens jump to conclusions about her character, which they can’t manage to keep to themselves.
Logue pretties up nothing about Deadwood. You see the place for what it is, a charmless, muddy hole in the ground where people are chasing their fortunes—or stranded in the failed attempt—and not always careful as to methods. Unfortunately, the author tries to pretty up a couple aspects of her story toward the end, rushing through transitions that should have required more struggle. Nevertheless, The Streel is an engaging mystery and immigrant story.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.