So Far From Home Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Only disaster could force Mary Driscoll to leave her loving parents and Irish homeland. At fourteen years of age she boards the ship to Boston to begin working in the textile mills of Lowell. Ireland's Great Famine that began in 1845 was the disaster that forced Mary to leave. From 1845 to 1850 one million Irish citizens died when the potato crops failed and widespread starvation occurred. In describing Mary's hometown of Skibbereen, author Barry Denenberg writes, "So many people died that there weren't enough coffins in which to bury the dead." To avoid starvation, almost one quarter of Ireland's population left the country.
So Far From Home is Mary's story of the grueling voyage to America and her coming to grips with the realities of life for an Irish immigrant girl whose dreams of America were filled with hopes of prosperity for all and pictures of streets paved in gold. Using the diary format, Barry Denenberg recounts Mary's life as a working girl in the Lowell mills. Readers journey with her into the deafening mills, the overt prejudice against Irish immigrants, and the sad news of her parent's death back in Ireland. Barry Denenberg says, "While writing and researching So Far From Home, I was moved by Mary Driscoll and how she made her way. Hers is, to me, an heroic story." Young readers will agree.
During the past two years, Skibbereen, Mary's home town in Ireland, had been ravaged by the Great Potato Famine. Mary watched her gentle mother turn away starving people as Mary herself dreamed of hot bubbling stews. It had been over two weeks since she and her parents had eaten a nutritious meal.
With the financial help of an aunt and older sister in America, fourteen-year-old Mary Driscoll bids a tearful good-bye to her parents and boards the ship for Boston and a new life of hope in America. Mary's dreams of gold-paved streets dissolve as she disembarks into the whirlpool of noise and confusion that is Boston harbor on the evening of June 22, 1847. The kings and queens that Mary has imagined melt into throngs of Irish beggars, hopelessly staring into the distance with unseeing eyes. In an attempt to bolster her waning courage, Mary reasons, "What could be worse than what I had already seen back in Ireland?"
In the factory town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where Mary will live and work, she is greeted by signs that boldly pronounce, NINA-No Irish Need Apply. She experiences first-hand the disdain American workers harbor. "The Irish should stay in Ireland where they belong" is a common statement rooted in the Yankee worker's belief that the influx of immigrants has eroded their wages and ruined their health. However, through her selflessness, hard work, simplicity, and honesty, Mary earns friends among the American mill girls. As a mill girl, she learns the realities of factory life from the long hours of tedious labor coupled with the constant deafening noise of the power looms to the grim realities of seeing workers lose their fingers, hair , and even their lives to the unyielding, unsafe machinery.
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl provides a glimpse into the life of a girl who only seven months earlier had been "huddling against the inside wall of the ship" gripping her possessions and humming her mother's lullaby. As we read her diary, readers watch Mary mature into an assertive, caring young woman who has crossed not only the Atlantic, but also the barriers ignorance and prejudice have erected.
Thinking About the Book
- Mary and Kate Driscoll are sisters, but very different. How do the sisters differ? Which of the Driscoll sisters would you prefer to be friends with? Why?
- When Mary comes to America she finds that Irish girls are not always treated kindly. What are some examples that show the poor treatment of these new immigrants?
- One of the problems mill girls faced was that working in the factories was not very safe. From Mary's diary, list some examples that illustrate just how dangerous work in the factories could be.
- One of the mill girls, Laura Austin, was fearful that her name might be placed on "the list." What is "the list," and why might Laura be on it?
- Mary's experiences in America change her. By the time Mary has written her last entry in the diary, how has she changed from the girl sh was when she left Ireland?
- Mary asked herself what could be worse than what she had seen back in Ireland. What do you think was the worst experience Mary encountered: the conditions during the famine in Ireland; having to leave her parents and journey alone to a foreign country; living in filthy, sub-human conditions on the ship or working in the mills? Why?
- Mary's Aunt Nora describes America as a land of hope. By the end of So Far From Home, do you think Mary is hopeful? Explain your answer, then read Barry Denenberg's thoughts on this in the author interview.
- In your literature discussion groups, debate the question of whether or not Mary Driscoll would have been better off staying in Ireland with her parents and refusing to come to America.
- Barry Denenberg, the author of So Far From Home, carefully describes each of the main characters in the book. For example, Clarissa Burroughs is described with this line: "If she swallowed a knitting needle "twould come out a corkscrew." Who is he describing with the following words? "She fixes her hair in a braided crown now and dresses with great care. She speaks with a singsong voice that sounds make-believe-like she were a fairytale princess." Create a quiz for other members of your group in which you find sentences from the book that describe three different characters. See if others in your group can identify each characters being described.
- Because Mary had both Irish and American friends at the factory, she learned about the ways both sides lived. Using a Venn diagram, compare the lives of the Irish mill girls to the lives of American mill girls.
- The Irish people have often been called a poetic people. Mary uses many similes and metaphors in her diary. "Buzzing like a maddening fly,""scared as a rabbit," and "runs as deep as the ocean" are just three of her colorful images. Working in groups, make a word wall of Mary's descriptive language. Draw a picture to go with each expression. How do Mary's words help you visualize what you read?
- In the epilogue, the author of So Far From Home has Mary Driscoll die in a cholera epidemic at the age of seventeen. Write an essay that describes what you'd like to see happen to Mary after her last diary entry on November 7, 1847.
- Just like Mary Driscoll, most of our ancestors came to the United States from other countries. Interview your parents, grandparents, and other relatives to find out where your family came from. Then work with your classmates to map the immigration patterns for your class. What countries are represented? Using a globe or world map. put a flag in each country represented on your class's "family tree."
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.