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Set against the events of the American Civil War, The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan depicts an Irish immigrant girl and her family who are struggling to find their place in the war-torn country. Mary Mehan Awake takes up Mary’s story after the war, when she must begin a journey of renewal.

A note from the author

I wrote The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan in order to convey something of what I felt about the Civil War. It’s a story of breakup and disorder and impossible hopes, and the form I chose to tell it in is a broken and disorderly one. It’s all fragments and dreams. If the result is a successful marriage of form and content, I feel that I’ve done good work. It was certainly very hard work, and sometimes I found it difficult emotionally to sit down and make myself confront it.

When I was finished with The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, I was drained and unhappy, and I had a sneaking suspicion that I owed something to my character. I had left her in the middle of a war, and I wished I could see her safely to a better place, but I felt too depleted to consider how I might do that. I left home and embarked on a long, solitary train journey into the wild north of Canada. I was so tired that I only took one book with me: It was a collection of essays about the pioneering naturalists of North America. As I watched the Canadian landscape flash past my window on the way up to Hudson Bay, I found that I could see how to lead Mairhe safely to a better place. The entire plot of Mary Mehan Awake came to me on that train ride; I had to scour the gift shop in the Winnipeg train station to find a spiral notebook so I could begin writing.

While The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan is narrated by Mairhe, I knew she could not narrate the sequel, because sleepwalkers cannot narrate stories. So, I took the position of a naturalist-observer, watching and recording her progress. Like all Sleeping Beauty stories, this one has a prince to cut through the thorns to waken her. And I brought her to a happy ending at last.

–Jennifer Armstrong

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Why does Mairhe decide to change her name to Mary? How does this reflect her state of mind after the war?

2. In the first chapter of The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, Mike is called a “damned Irish nigra.” (p. 7) What other types of racial prejudice appear in the novel? Where do you see discrimination in today’s society?

3. In The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, Mary refers to the Fenians, a group of nineteenth-century nationalist revolutionaries. They supported the liberation of Ireland from Great Britain and the establishment of an independent Irish Republic. Mary says, “I’m not like Da. And I’m no Fenian. I’ve no plan to go back.” (p. 19) Discuss the tension among Mary, Mike, and their father.

4. In The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, the author interweaves battle scenes with a barroom dance. What are the connections between the two? Where are they discordant?

5. Discuss the many ways Mary imagines using the lace she makes–both literal and figurative. What makes the lace such a potent symbol for America?

6. At the conclusion of The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, Mr. Walt (Whitman) quotes one of his poems, called “Starting from Paumanok,” from Leaves of Grass, his autobiographical poem published in 1855. Mr. Walt says: “Listen dear son–listen America, daughter or son, It is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and yet it satisfies, it is great, But there is something else very great, it makes the whole coincide, It, magnificent, beyond materials, with continuous hands sweeps and provides for all.” (p. 131) Discuss what this means to Mary.

7. What is the source of Mary’s awakening in Mary Mehan Awake?

8. How does the war affect Henry and Mary? How do their experiences both separate and connect them to other people?

9. Mary describes her dreams as “the twilight between one world and another.” (p. 3) How does she escape this dream world in Mary Mehan Awake?

10. Describe Mary’s experience when she and Henry visit Niagara Falls in Mary Mehan Awake. Why is she surprised when they reach the Cave of the Winds at the bottom of the falls?

11. The author uses the following quotation from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as the epigraph for Book III in Mary Mehan Awake: “Is this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity, / Flames and ether making a rush for my veins.” (p. 217) How does this relate to Mary’s friendship with Henry?

12. Why does Mr. Dorsett’s illness frighten Mary?

13. What does Mary learn from Mr. Walt?

14. Why do you think the author chose to use Walt Whitman as a character?

15. Based on your readings of the dreams in these novels, do you think that dreams can influence your waking hours or that your waking hours can influence your dreams? Could both be true?

16. Mary writes a letter to Mr. Walt at the conclusion of Mary Mehan Awake. What is the author suggesting with Mary and Henry’s journey to the West?

About this Author

A CONVERSATION WITH Jennifer Armstrong

Q. What would you say are some of the obligations and opportunities of the historical novelist?

A. The most important issues of all are thoroughness and intellectual honesty. The more thoroughly you understand the values, the intellectual paradigms, the language, the literature, the popular culture, the high culture, the material culture, the technology, the superstitions, the cuisine, the politics, the prejudices, the mythologies, the worldview, and the manners of another age and another place, the more effective your work will be. And, I might add, the less likely you are to commit the intellectual blunder of ascribing contemporary ideas and values to a historical context. One of the hardest things about writing good historical fiction is gritting your teeth and letting your beloved characters say things and do things that could get them in big trouble in today’s world. Things were different back then. People were different. Ideas were different. Don’t be afraid that if your characters say something politically incorrect people will think you are saying this. Fiction is fiction, not autobiography.

Q. Has writing historical fiction changed your view of history?

A. It is comforting to think of history as a time line of hard facts, something that happened and that we can pin down, something that we categorize as factual, whereas fiction we categorize as nonfactual. However, it is only too clear to me that history is not something we can pin down. We circle around it and approach it from different angles, dart in at it, and grab parts of it. Real history is not factual. It is a story with many narrators and many endings, and the significance of any one event shifts and alters. The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan explores this proposition. Readers should keep wondering, “Did that happen or is Mairhe making it up?” I wanted to suggest with this unreliable narrator that all of history’s narrators are unreliable. Nevertheless, there’s truth to be found somewhere in it.

Q. How do you go about injecting truth into a fictional story?

A. For Becoming Mary Mehan, I took what I knew about being Irish, poor, female, and an immigrant; I took what I knew about the Civil War, and I took what I knew about Whitman and his poetry; I took what I knew about race relations, President Lincoln, and the cadences of Irish poetry. I took all these things and more, and imagined a story where they all came together. But I could not make Whitman something he was not . . . in some strange dog-chasing-its-tail way, historical fiction takes all these things that were (the history) and turns something that was not (an imagined story) into something that could have been. That, I’d say, is the truth in storytelling.

Q. How do you make the history feel so personal?

A. As a writer of historical fiction, I bring whatever understanding I have about the human experience to imagine the effect of events on people’s lives. Although I stand by what I said about understanding how things–people and cultures–were different, it is also true that human emotions and reactions don’t change. The circumstances of those emotions and reactions might change, but hope is hope, fear is fear, wonder is wonder, no matter what century you’re in. If I have felt those emotions, I can bring them to life in my characters.

Q. The American poet Walt Whitman appears in both novels as a friend and advisor for Mary Mehan. How did you go about creating dialogue for a real historical figure? What are the boundaries for a novelist here?

A. It is true that by placing real people–Walt Whitman, for example–in fictional scenes, I am inventing something untrue in the life of a known historical figure. There’s a fine line to be walked here. I can’t have Whitman in a scene cheering bloodthirstily for war and cussing the Rebs, because Whitman was not that kind of man. But I think I can be allowed to show him sitting by the side of a dying soldier, and consoling a frightened girl with hope of a greater good to come, because Whitman was that kind of man. He could have befriended an Irish girl in Washington, and he certainly kept watch over many a dying soldier. These scenes cannot be said to be authentic, because they are invented, but I believe they are entirely plausible. I tried to limit the number of scenes with Whitman, for fear of going too far and taking liberties with a man whom so many people know and admire. I considered it something in the nature of asking a favor of a generous friend: I didn’t want to get greedy and ask too much.

Q. Having written both historical fiction and historical nonfiction, how would you describe the difference?

A. When I write a novel, I am fictionalizing historical events; when I write nonfiction, I am dramatizing historical events. My responsibility is twofold in each case: to write a good story and to make the history that surrounds it legible. The emphasis in the case of historical fiction is to tell a good story first, and then to be careful that it is well supported by the history. In the case of historical nonfiction, the priority is to make the history legible, and then to make sure it’s a darn good story. Otherwise who’s going to want to read it?

Q. How do you begin your research? Do you work differently if you are creating a piece of fiction or nonfiction?

A. Whenever possible, these are the sources I like to study: diaries, letters, newspapers, commercial advertisements, political speeches, sermons, songs, children’s stories and other pedagogical material, recipes, wills and household inventories, travelogues, maps, manuals of advice, architectural drawings, cargo manifests, menus, photographs, farmers’ almanacs, paintings, dress patterns, help-wanted ads, court transcripts, medical handbooks, et cetera. You can learn so much about a culture from studying these things. I don’t research differently for fiction and nonfiction, because in both cases, the goal is to absorb as much as possible about the period in order to make it come to life on the page.

Q. Do you travel to the sites you write about? Did you visit Washington, D.C., before writing The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan or Lake Ontario before writing Mary Mehan Awake?

A. No, I did not go to Washington, D.C., because the Capital City I was writing about no longer exists. Travel can be a part of gathering insights into the past, but there are pitfalls there, too.

If you can’t remove the contemporary overlay from a city you are looking at, it will be hard to imagine it without cars or without tall buildings. If you are researching a specific place and it has a lot of human artifacts, it might be better to use historical photos, if possible, or paintings, or written descriptions. This is what I was able to do with Washington; there are many, many photographs of the capital during the war, so this is what I used for location research.

A natural setting may be a different story. Although Niagara Falls has changed to a degree since the nineteenth century, the power of this natural wonder is so extraordinary that it was very helpful for me to go there, to feel the thunder coming up through my feet and shaking my bones, and to know that it would have been even more so before the hydroelectric plants diverted so much of the Niagara River. By the same token, Lake Ontario itself hasn’t altered very much. There is still much undeveloped shoreline, and there are still many small towns that haven’t changed
significantly in a hundred years.

Travel is a useful tool for location research, but it should be done with these caveats: that you should only do it if you can make yourself not see the modern age when you are looking or if you cannot find historical images of the setting.

Q. Do you have other sources of inspiration? Where do you look for ideas for your work?

A. If you want to be good at writing about history, your interest in history should be ever-present and eclectic. Reading history should be something you do all the time, not just when you’re working on a project. Read widely, read often. I refer to this as casting the net; when you cast the net widely and often, you’ll have a bountiful catch. The first thing you’ll catch is story ideas. The second thing you’ll catch is the unexpected, unlooked-for echo of something you are working on. Another sort of net-casting I try to practice as much as possible is jumping at opportunities that will take me out of the twenty-first century. I’ve been to Civil War battle reenactments and been shocked and shaken by how loud a rifle salvo is and by how quickly the air is clouded with sharp, eye-stinging smoke.

Q. How do you structure your writing time? What is your typical workday?

A. My typical workday is to do e-mail in the morning, and maybe do errands or go to the library. Then by 11 a.m. at the latest, I get to my office and work. Not all my work is writing books–sometimes I have to spend time writing a speech or an article for a magazine, or making arrangements with a school to do an author visit there. Sometimes I have to talk on the phone with my editor about one of the projects I’m working on. I try to keep pretty normal business hours, which means I quit by five or six and that’s it for the day.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

A. By the time I was in first grade, I knew I was going to be an author. The only time I briefly considered a different career was in sixth grade, when we were studying ancient Egypt in social studies and I decided to become an archaeologist. I loved those mummies. My enthusiasm for a life in archaeology eventually waned, however; I was always, first and last, an author.

From the Paperback edition.

Suggested Reading

Other books by Jennifer Armstrong

Stories of Children and War
Edited by Jennifer Armstrong

This collection, written by twelve noted young adult authors, examines all of war’s implications for young people–from those caught in the line of fire to the children of veterans of wars long past.

Critically acclaimed author Jennifer Armstrong brings together these powerful voices in young people’s literature to explore the realities of war, including stories by M. E. Kerr, Suzanne Fisher Staples, Joseph Bruchac, Marilyn Singer, Graham Salisbury, and many more. The settings vary widely–the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an attempted coup in Venezuela, the American Civil War, crises in the Middle East–but the effects are largely the same. In war, no life is left untouched. In war, all lives are shattered.

In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer
Irene Gut Opdyke
with Jennifer Armstrong

You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence.

Irene Gut was just seventeen when the war began: a Polish patriot, a student nurse, and a good Catholic girl. As the war progressed, the soldiers of two countries stripped her of all she loved–her family, her home, her innocence–but the degradations only strengthened her will. Irene was forced to work for the German army, but her blond hair, blue eyes, and youth bought her the relatively safe job of waitress in an officers’ dining room. She would use this Aryan mask as both a shield and a sword. When she was made the housekeeper of a Nazi major, she successfully hid twelve Jews in the basement of his home until the Germans’ defeat.

Internet resources

Selected Civil War Photographs
Selected photos from the Civil War, 1861—1865. Includes U.S. Library of Congress photo database.

Gettysburg National Military Park Virtual Tour
Visit the battlefield of 1863 via photos and in-depth maps.

American Battlefield Protection Program
Part of the National Park Service’s effort to preserve Civil War sites.
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