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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Seven Letters

A Novel

J. P. Monninger

St. Martin's Griffin


Part 1



To: Dr. Fowler/Dissertation committee

From: Kate Moreton

Subject: teaching release, spring semester

Dear Dr. Fowler:

As we discussed, I am taking leave of my teaching responsibilities for the spring semester, 2019. Dean Howell has already given her permission and the attendant paperwork is attached. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

I am using the Brady Milsap Scholarship monies—awarded by the Dartmouth Alumni Association—to fund a research trip to Ireland, and, specifically, to the Blasket Islands off the southwest coast of Ireland. My dissertation, as you know better than anyone else, centers on the narratives of the Blasket Islanders and their emigration from the Blaskets to the United States. I hope to gather as many narratives as I can, including all those already published, and compile the definitive anthology and bibliography of oral accounts of the islanders’ relocation to the Springfield/Chicopee areas of Massachusetts. As you know from my proposal, the island is now abandoned except for a tourist cafeteria to handle summer visitors who come to explore the remnants of the original village. The Irish Land Commission ordered the island vacated, and by 1953, this community of twenty-two people and their furniture were transferred over the sound to four newly built cottages at Dunquin with three acres of arable land attached.

To the extent that it is possible, I hope to compare and contrast the narratives of those former Irish citizens who, in the middle of the twentieth century, found themselves living in a new land in America. It’s an ambitious project, and I could not have undertaken it without your endorsement. I will be housed, for at least part of my time in Ireland, at the University of Limerick.

The citizens of the Blasket Islands represent, to many linguists, the purest, and oldest, Irish language constructions. My travel will inform my research and I cannot imagine finishing my dissertation without having this experience. I regret leaving the classroom, but I am energized by the scholarship that awaits me. I grew up in the Springfield/Chicopee region of Massachusetts, and I have long been fascinated by this population. It has been a lifelong dream to travel to Ireland to further my research and interest. It is a part of my heritage.

Thanks to you and the members of the dissertation committee for encouraging me in this regard. I appreciate the letters of recommendation committee members sent on my behalf to the Brady Milsap Alumni Scholarship Fund. I am confident my research will prove invaluable in fleshing out my dissertation and will, perhaps, make a small contribution to our understanding of the Blasket Island populations.

Respectfully submitted,

Kate Moreton


I had misgivings: it was a tourist bus. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I had booked passage on a tourist bus. It wasn’t even a good kind of tourist bus, if there is such a thing. It was a massive, absurd mountain of a machine, blue and white, with a front grill the size of a baseball backstop. When the tour director—a competent, harried woman named Rosie—pointed me toward it with the corner of her clipboard, I tried to imagine there was some mistake. The idea that the place I had studied for years, the Blasket Islands off Ireland’s southwest coast, could be approached by such a vehicle, seemed sacrilegious. The fierce Irish women in my dissertation would not have known what to say about a bus with televisions, tinted windows, air-conditioning, bathrooms, and a soundtrack playing a loop of sentimental Irish music featuring “Galway Bay” and “Danny Boy.” Especially “Danny Boy.” It was like driving through the Louvre on a motor scooter. It didn’t even seem possible that the bus could fit the small, twisty roads of Dingle.

I took a deep breath and climbed aboard. My backpack whacked against the door.

Immediately I experienced that bus moment. Anyone who has ever taken a bus has experienced it. You step up and look around and you are searching for seats, but most of them are taken, and the bus is somewhat dimmer than the outside light, and the seat backs cover almost everything except the eyes and foreheads of the seated passengers. Most of them try to avoid your eyes because they don’t want you sitting next to them, but they are aware, also, that there are only so many seats, so if they are going to surrender the place next to them they would prefer it be to someone who looks at least marginally sane. Meanwhile, I tried to see over the seat backs to vacant places, also assessing who might be a decent, more or less silent traveling companion, while also determining who seemed too eager to have me beside her or him. I wanted to avoid that person at all costs.

That bus moment.

* * *

I also felt exhausted. I was exhausted from the Boston–Limerick flight, tired in the way only airports and plane air can make you feel. Like old, stale bread. Like bread left out to dry itself into turkey stuffing.

I felt, too, a little like crying.

Not now, I told myself. Then I started forward.

The passengers were old. My best friend, Milly, would have said that it wasn’t a polite thing to say or think, but I couldn’t help it. With only their heads extending above the seat backs, they looked like a field of dandelion puffs. They smiled and made small talk with one another, clearly happy to be on vacation, and often they looked up and nodded to me. I could have been their granddaughter and that was okay with them. They liked “Danny Boy.” They liked coming to Ireland; many of them had relatives here, I was certain. This was a homecoming of sorts, and I couldn’t be crabby about that, so I braced myself going down the aisle, my eyes doing the bus scan, which meant looking without staring, hoping without wishing.

Halfway down the bus, I came to an empty seat. Two empty seats. It didn’t seem possible. I stopped and tried not to swing around and hit anyone with my backpack. Rosie hadn’t boarded the bus; I could see the driver standing outside, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Two empty seats? It felt like a trap. It felt too good to be true.

“Back here, dear,” an older man called to me. “There’s a spot here. That seat is reserved. I don’t think you can sit there. At least no one has.”

I considered trying my luck, plunking down and waiting for whatever might happen. Then again, that could land me in an even more horrible situation. The older gentleman who called to me looked sane and reasonably groomed. I could do worse. I smiled and hoisted my backpack and clunked down the aisle, hammering both sides until people raised their hands to fend me away.

“Here, I’ll just store this above us,” said the old man who had offered me a seat. He had the bin open above our spot. He shoved a mushroom-colored raincoat inside it. He smiled at me. He had a moustache as wide as a Band-Aid across his top lip.

I inched my way down the aisle until I stood beside him.

“Gerry,” he said, holding out his hand. “What luck for me. I get to sit next to a beautiful, red-haired colleen. What’s your name?”

“Kate,” I said.

“That’s a good Irish name. Are you Irish?”

“American, but yes. Irish ancestry.”

“So am I. I believe everyone on the bus has some connection to the old sod. I’d put money on it.”

He won a point for the first mention of the old sod that I had heard since landing in Ireland four hours before.

He helped me swing my bag up into the bin. Then I remembered I needed my books and I had to swing the backpack down again. As I dug through the bag, Gerry beside me, I felt the miles of traveling clinging to me. How strange to wake up in Boston and end up on a bus going to Dingle, the most beautiful peninsula in the world.


“How Irish are you?” Gerry asked when we had settled in our seats. “I find there is such variety in the attachments people have to Ireland. American people, I mean. Well, I suppose anyone. I’ve always thought Ireland is the earth’s bedtime story, so to speak. It’s hard to put it into words.”

“My family is from Ireland. Both sides, actually. I guess I’m about fourth-generation.”

“Second-generation for me. Of course, I’m a good bit older than you. Where are you from in the States?”

“I grew up in Springfield, Mass.”

“I’m a Chicago man myself. Born and raised. Well, I’m very pleased to be sitting next to you. What fun! You know, my wife died last year, and people say, Gerry, how can you go traveling all by yourself? But I say, on the contrary, it’s just the thing. Traveling by yourself you have to meet people. You have to be outgoing, otherwise what’s the point of it all? I bet you agree.”

It was going to be a long trip, I realized. A very Gerry day. I wondered if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake by sitting next to him.

Before I could reply to his last statement, a low whining sound filled the bus. Rosie suddenly appeared near the driver’s seat and hurried down the aisle. She had to turn sideways and people tried to ask her questions on the fly, but she held up a finger to delay them. The whining sound grew louder. Then a pair of doors opened in the center of the bus and I realized the whining sound came from a wheelchair being lifted into the coach. The person in the wheelchair was a very, very old woman. She nodded back and forth when the seat came to a stop. She wore a beautiful red boiled-wool jacket and gray trousers. She wore slippers on her feet, but they were stylish and purposeful. She had an exceedingly kind face. Clearly, she felt apologetic for making us all wait while she was loaded onto the bus. A male nurse came up the lift with her. When the lift settled, he supported the old woman from behind as she shuffled painfully forward. He guided her to the seat that I had left empty, with Rosie assenting, saying, Yes, yes, that’s right, there’s a darling. The old woman sat slowly, almost as if she might shatter from sheer hollowness. The nurse spent a few minutes tucking a plaid blanket over her legs and then the nurse handed to Rosie a tote bag filled with articles obviously intended for the elderly woman. Rosie put them on the seat beside the old woman. Then the nurse rode the lift back down.

“I knew that seat was reserved for a reason,” Gerry said, nodding as if confirming something important. “Precious cargo.”

“Do you know her?”

“Never seen her. She looks like a grand lady, though. Not a tourist, I don’t think.”

“No, not a tourist,” I agreed.

Her eyes had flickered on mine in passing. And while I had boarded the bus and tried to keep my eyes from expressing anything, she had sent her vision into the world to see where a new friend might be waiting. Willing to be a friend, she saw friends everywhere.

Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Monninger