A tragic story beautifully rendered by an author known far and wide to consistently pay attention to painstaking detail. In Ash Wednesday, Author Paula McClain depicts a harrowing moment in American history by penning a fictional account of a fire in an improperly designed school building, in as industrial area of Cleveland, Ohio, on the outskirts of downtown.
It is Ash Wednesday, 1908-, and forty-six-year-old Swiss immigrant, Fritz Hirter, is the janitor of Collinwood’s community School. It is winter, and Fritz, the father of five and married to Eva, takes pride in his supportive role, in a community that seems to give short shrift to its immigrant population. Well aware of corners cut during the school’s recent expansion, Fritz is vigilant in his task of keeping the building properly heated, in the face of the school’s structural vulnerability. It is dangerous work, tending to the basement’s boiler system, and Fritz’s heart is in every gesture of maintaining the building where his young children are being educated.
In this tightly woven, present tense short story, McClain gives minute-to-minute details of a spontaneous event spinning out of control and ending in community tragedy. Questions of responsibility, blame, and community shame are at issue in this seemingly personal story, in view of its central character.
Ash Wednesday is Paula McClain at her reliable best and is an installment in her A Point in Time, a transporting collection of short stories about pivotal moments, past and present, that change lives. It’s a riveting, compelling story with a troubling aftershock made important by the fact that McClain has expertly brought it to light. Paula McLain
Note: Ash Wednesday is available on Amazon as an E-Book!
Paula McClain received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996.
McLain’s essays have appeared in Town & Country, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, O the Oprah Magazine, Huffington Post, The Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere. She is also the author of the memoir, Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses, two collections of poetry, the debut novel, A Ticket to Ride, Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife, and When the Stars Go Dark. She lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.
Home Stretch by Graham Norton is a vibrantly written, delightful story with coming-of-age elements operating within a family saga’s network that begins in small-town Ireland, travels to New York, spans 32 years, and sweeps back to where it started.
It is 1987 Ireland, and Dan and Chrissie Hayes own a local pub in Mullinmore, not far from Cork City. As the tight-knit community prepares for the wedding of two young locals, 22-year-old Connor Hayes agrees to join the bride, groom, and three others on a trip to the beach the day before the wedding.
Tragedy strikes on Barry’s roundabout when the car flips on the way home and three of the six youths are killed. In a community whose citizens live like threads in a fabric, Mullinmore is blindsided, and when word spreads that Connor Hayes was driving, the stage is set for this intricately entwined story involving the ramifications of that fateful car crash.
Connor’s parents arrange for Connor to take a construction job in Liverpool, thinking the day will come when Connor’s presence doesn’t serve as constant reminder of the town’s tragedy, that one day it will be safe for Connor to come back, but Connor’s motivation is influenced by Ireland’s cultural mores and his return to Mullinmore is a decades-long journey.
The fully realized characters in this cause-and-effect story are written sympathetically; the drama that unfolds is due to the times. Connor is a young man grappling with identity issues, and as he comes to terms with his sexuality, he fears bringing shame to his family and cuts all ties with his past, including communication with his parents and sister.
Leaving Liverpool for London without telling his family, Connor settles in and finds a new family. He thinks in hindsight, “If he hadn’t been forced to run away, who knows how long it would have taken to become this man?” His confidence builds, and he wonders, “Had this life that he was now living been available to him all along?”
Connor’s elder sister, Ellen, wants to distance herself from her family’s stigma, and doesn’t suspect the attentions of Martin Coulter are divisive. The son of the Mullinmore’ s doctor, Martin Coulter is connected to Connor as one of the survivors of the car crash, and when he marries Ellen Hayes, the marriage swiftly becomes unhappy. “The change was so abrupt, she doubted herself. The young bride wondered what she had done wrong. What had changed?” In time, Martin follows in his father’s professional footsteps and two children come along, but “Marriage, it seemed to Ellen, wasn’t about being happy or making someone happy. It turned out it was just a matter of deciding whose unhappiness was easiest to deal with. It was hers.”
In London, Connor crosses paths with an international businessman named Tim and moves with him to America. The years transpire, Connor is 44 in the year 2012, and a twist of fate comes in New York City when “Two Irish men walked into a bar.”
Finbarr Coulter is newly arrived in New York from Ireland. Twenty-two, he lands a bartending job and on his first week of employment, when Connor walks in to drown the sorrows of his 16-year relationship ending, it comes to uncanny light after a few too many that the two are related. Connor wonders, “What version of the story did Finbarr know? He knew he was afraid—but of what precisely? He felt he could bear hearing about the town still blaming him for what had happened,” but “what terrified him was the idea of discovering that everyone had simply forgotten him and gone on with their lives.”
A trajectory begins that leads Connor home to Ireland, and wheels are set in motion to repair the past. The Irish culture has changed, and with it the minds of Mullimore’s locals, and the truth behind the car crash 32 years before brings all characters in the story to alignment.
Author Graham Norton is a masterful storyteller. The layered crafting of Home Stretch is rife with pithy innuendo and story-driving personality. His sharp eye captures the nuance of small-town Ireland in the process of evolution as he unfurls this interconnected story with spellbinding verve and finesse.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
Graham William Walker (born 4 April 1963), better known by his stage name Graham Norton, is an Irish actor, author, comedian, commentator, and presenter. Well known for his work in the UK, he is a five-time BAFTA TV Award winner for his comedy chat show The Graham Norton Show (2007-present) and an eight-time award winner overall. Originally shown on BBC Two before moving to other slots on BBC One, his chat show succeeded Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in BBC One’s prestigious late-Friday-evening slot in 2010. From 2010 to 2020 Norton presented the Saturday morning slot on BBC Radio 2 and since 2021 has presented on Saturdays and Sundays on Virgin Radio UK. Since 2009, he has been the BBC’s television commentator for the Eurovision Song Contest, which led Hot Press to describe him as “the 21st century’s answer to Terry Wogan”. He has been noted for his innuendo-laden dialogue and flamboyant presentation style. In 2012 he sold his production company So Television to IT
Anna Hart is a seasoned missing persons detective in San Francisco with far too much knowledge of the darkest side of human nature. When overwhelming tragedy strikes her personal life, Anna, desperate and numb, flees to the Northern California village of Mendocino to grieve. She lived there as a child with her beloved foster parents, and now she believes it might be the only place left for her. Yet the day she arrives, she learns a local teenage girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of the most crucial time in Anna’s childhood, when the unsolved murder of a young girl touched Mendocino and changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna realizes that she has been led to this moment. The most difficult lessons of her life have given her insight into how victims come into contact with violent predators. As Anna becomes obsessed with the missing girl, she must accept that true courage means getting out of her own way and learning to let others in.
Weaving together actual cases of missing persons, trauma theory, and a hint of the metaphysical, this propulsive and deeply affecting novel tells a story of fate, necessary redemption, and what it takes, when the worst happens, to reclaim our lives–and our faith in one another.
“When the Stars Go Dark is an intriguing, harrowing story that suggests we should never grow comfortable in a false sense of security . . . It’s a masterfully written story of resolution and reconciliation that operates on multiple levels of time, mind, and spirit.”
Paula McClain’s When the Stars Go Dark lures you into engaging with the story lest you miss a moment of its well-wrought beats. This is a haunting, intelligent novel for the discerning reader; the thinking man’s page-turner; a riveting crime-detective story seen through the wounded soul of 35-year old narrator Anna Hart whose life comes full circle as she tries to outrun her past.
Paula McLain is the author of the the New York Times bestselling novels The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun, and Love and Ruin. Now she introduces When the Stars Go Dark, an atmospheric tale of intertwined destinies and heart-wrenching suspense. McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker, a cocktail waitress–before discovering she could (and very much wanted to) write. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996, and is the author of two collections of poetry, a memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses, and the debut novel, A Ticket to Ride. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, O: the Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Huffington Post, the Guardian and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Cleveland.
Every March, I look forward to St. Patrick’s Day because it triggers the memory of when I lived on the west coast of Ireland. As an American with 48% Irish DNA, I felt right at home in Inverin, which is a small village in Connemara, 2.7. miles up the road from the village of Spiddal, the next significant town being Clifden, fifty miles or so up the same road.
I lived in Ireland for more than a year and loved every minute of it.. Connemara is a land separated into geometric prisms by grey-stone walls leading down to the rock encrusted shores of the Atlantic on one side of the coast road and bog-land that stretches out forever on the other. Alongside the novelty of discovering Ireland was a curious sense of familiarity that gave way to a sense of belonging. Between the time I arrived in Ireland and the time I left, I managed to ingratiate myself into the rhythm of a land that has more soul and character than any place I’d ever imagined.
Inverin really isn’t much more than a stretch of the coast road at the gateway to the Gaeltacht, which is an area on the west coast of Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language. Inverin is moody, pastoral, a bit desolate, and those that reside there have deep generational ties. Inverin is 13 miles up the coast road from Galway City. Here are some photographs to give you an idea of Inverin’s atmosphere:
I lived within a short walk of this graveyard. It’s down a gravel road not far from The Centra, which, for all intent and purposes, is the lone gas station/grocery store in Inverin. I have a thing about graveyards that’s hard to explain. They speak to me of the significance of human existence–of love and life and history, with indelible, reverential resonance indicative of a region’s culture. Ireland takes its cemeteries seriously, and walking through an Irish graveyard has always given me an anchored sense of place. They are lonely, haunting, and beautiful, and what I love about the graveyard pictured above is that the headstones all face the sea.
Inverin was my home base, and during the week, I took the bus from Inverin into Galway, where I worked on New Road at the Galway Music Centre. Galway is a college town, which makes it feel youthful and vibrant. Here are some photographs that illustrate my point:
The Claddagh, Galway, a port for anglers on Galway Bay.
As a writer by nature, I walk through life with a running commentary in my head, and keep a journal. I took the experience of living in Ireland and used it as a basis to write a novel about a single American female who leaves the record business in Los Angeles and relocates to rural Ireland, where she meets an Irish traditional musician who won’t come closer nor completely go away. The novel is titled “Dancing to an Irish Reel.” I went out of my way not to patronize anything about Ireland, particularly its people. I wanted to refrain from bringing an American frame of reference to the book because I felt it had been done before and somehow cheated what I wanted to be the point of the story, which concerns the ambiguity of a budding love relationship, with its attendant excitement, hope and doubt. On the one hand, this story could have happened anywhere (I know of very few people who haven’t been thrown into confusion as they navigate the minefield of new found attraction) but because this story takes place in Ireland, I had the opportunity to highlight a setting in possession of unfathomable beauty, with a history of cultural nuances worth the singing of deep praise. In writing “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” I did what all novelists do: tell about how they find the world through the vehicle of one painstakingly crafted case in point story.
In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, there is a Goodreads Giveaway running until March 20 of Dancing to an Irish Reel.
And this will be fun, as well as unprecedented! On Sunday, March 14, I’ll have the immense pleasure of being a part of a Facebook, multiple book page St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I’ll be in conversation with Irish author, Billy O’Callaghan, at noon, Eastern Standard Time on the Facebook page, The Write Review. We plan to talk about Irish culture, the influence of Ireland on our writing, and whatever else comes to mind. I hope to see you there! You can find all the book pages involved in this celebration on the graphic below, so if you’re on Facebook, simply go to the book pages to join in the fun!