A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd

Shell Talent is fifteen, dreamy, and innocent as few her age are in the United States are today. But then this is Ireland in the early ’80s, and she’s led a relatively protected life by current standards.

Her mother is dead, and her father, poor and alcoholic, is unable to provide what his family needs, either financially or emotionally. Shell, short for Michelle, is responsible for most of the housework after her mother’s death, helping her two younger siblings feed and dress themselves and the same for herself.

As the book begins, a new curate has come to town, to serve under the priest of the parish: a young man, new to the priesthood. The absence of her parents, literal in her mother’s case and figurative in her father’s, combined with the restrictive1 Catholic social environment of Ireland at the time leaves Shell at a loss as to how to deal with maturation. Not understanding the ramifications of what she’s doing–this is about the time the scandals of priests’ behavior with children in their parishes–Shell strikes up a relationship with Father Rose. She thinks little enough of that, as she doesn’t see him that way; rather she and her best friend, Bridie, both have a crush on the altar boy, Declan, who reciprocates.

When Shell’s relationship with altar boy Declan goes beyond mere friendship, she becomes pregnant. She does her best to conceal it, as indeed she must in the Ireland of the time. To heighten Shell’s social problems, her best friend, the prickly Bridie, had fancied herself to be Declan’s girlfriend, insofar as they were allowed to be at that time and in that place, and left Coolbar over the summer, purportedly to help her aunt and uncle with their B&B well away from Coolbar.

Shell’s baby, a girl, is stillborn at Christmas and the three children bury her in a nearby field. It is at this point that the subsequent and worse wave of scandal breaks, when a baby boy is found, dead from exposure, in a nearby cave. Shell’s father confesses to leaving the baby there in order to protect Shell from the repercussions of the death of what he believes to be his child; one night, while in a drunken stupor, he came into the children’s bedroom and mistook Shell fro her mother Moira, though in fact he passed out before anything happened. No one listens to Shell’s protestations of the truth of the matter. Meanwhile, the community of Coolbar believes that Father Rose is the father of Bridie’s child; their acquaintance was noted, and the combination of his offering Shell a ride home and a teasing note of Bridie’s referring to Shell’s infatuation with “him in his robes” clinched the leaping to conclusions.

It is only when Shell manages to convince Father Rose what has happened that the truth comes out. The police open the makeshift grave in the field and find exactly what Shell claims there to be. At first it is believed that the two infants are twins, as who would think there were two separate illicit pregnancies in a town the size of Coolbar? After a forensic examination, it is revealed that the boy is about five weeks older than the girl, but they are related…and Shell realizes that it must be Bridie’s baby.

Shell imagines a possible sequence of events: All the Quinns’ stories were fabrications. Bridie, five weeks farther along than she, was sent away to have her baby and, hitchhiking home to attempt a reconciliation, finds only an empty house–the family had gone away for the Christmas holidays. Believing herself abandoned, Bridie herself left her baby in the cave where Declan most probably spent time with her, and left the village for good.

A somewhat veiled book about a girl simultaneously dreamy and rooted in a reality of poverty, Dowd’s text adds to the layers of concealment; she never spells out what Declan did with the two girls though the two babies give a pretty clear idea of who did what with whom and when. As with Bog Child, it’s an interesting glimpse into another time and place, and one that left me glad to have grown up where I did. What a pity Dowd died before she wrote more books! Overall, I’d probably suggest it to teens whose reading level has advanced beyond, say, Dessen or Marchetta, as Dowd’s writing is a bit more complex and circumlocutory than the majority of the modern American writers.

1as opposed to more liberal versions


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