“The Real War will Never Get Into Books”: The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan (1996) by Jennifer Armstrong – Review by Kim McCollum-Clark
My rising sophomore son got his summer reading marching papers in early June: Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I felt the bile rise in my throat. Eason is a gamer, not a reader, and I have to work like a dog to encourage him to open any book. This choice felt like a blow. Crane’s psychological fever dream of a Civil War battle may be a “masterpiece of literary realism,” but I think that another novel depicting that era, Jennifer Armstrong’s The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, would be a more successful opening for young teens to that bloodiest of American wars, a war whose scars are still felt 150 years later. The main character, while not a combatant, gives us a different perspective on the conflict and the ways in which it touched all citizens who were obliged to live through it.
Mairhe Mehan (the Irish spelling of Mary, pronounced, Moira) is an Irish barmaid in Washington, DC. She works at the Shinny during the day and makes lace at night, hoping to save enough money to pay for passage back to Ireland for herself, her Da, and her beloved brother Mike. Mike is happy in America, but Da is too depressed to work. Mairhe herself is a kind of cipher. She works and works and worries. She does not know herself outside of these roles.
Mairhe’s sadness is overwhelmed by visions of those around her. She hears their dreams and hopes as she walks through the mud, “more food, a better job, someone to love me, make my son good, take this cough from me.” She dreams her brother’s dreams and experiences, and she is taken over by one fear: “I dreamed my brother was gone for a soldier.”
Mairhe’s Washington is a vibrant and half-built city, all races and all points of view represented, and President Lincoln rides through the streets and hosts citizens at tea in the White House. Mike works as a mason on the Capitol Building, complaining with his mates after the Italian marble “artisans” displace the Irish with the fancy work. Signs everywhere outside their neighborhood of Swampdoodle remind the Irish that they are less than other immigrants. They go to the Shinny, where they are welcome and debate the war.
Mairhe’s dad cries and drinks and remembers Ireland; Mike wants to make a place in this new land of “tryers and strivers,” but Mairhe wants only to protect her family. When Mike announces he’s signed up to join the Federals, Mairhe’s dreams are shattered. Who will she be without Mike? How can she bear to witness his struggle from afar?
Given Mairhe’s “connection” with Mike, we readers experience both her life in Washington and his in the army in this slight novel. With Mairhe, we meet Mr. Walter Whitman, also known as the poet and author of Leaves of Grass. He meets her on the way to visiting the wounded in the hospitals, experiences he would write about in his own Civil War reflection, Specimen Days. “The real war will never get into books,” he wrote there. Mairhe appeals to Whitman for help in getting Mike out of the army, but he urges her to help where she can, visiting with him in the hospitals. She turns on him, saying “If I am divided from my brother, I am in pieces. I am a fragment. I have no more substance than a dream that’s gone.”
“If I am divided from my brother, I am in pieces.” I am a native North Carolinian, a Caucasian woman, and I have always felt vaguely ashamed that my home state took the wrong side in this Civil War, but until I moved to Pennsylvania for graduate school, I had no idea how strongly the War still factors in people’s imaginations. How a grad class fell silent discussing the rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address, all eyes falling on me as if I would be offended. “Y’all,” I told them, “the right side won. It’s OK.” How when taking a older southern visitor to Gettysburg and standing on the other side of field from “the high watermark of the Confederacy” at Pickett’s charge, she said, “So this is where our boys camped.”
They were all our boys, of course. They were our brothers, every one. The pain Mairhe feels is one we should all feel, that it came to that. That conflict comes to this.
I’m going to reread Red Badge of Courage with my son, to keep him in the reading game. Crane’s book does not glamorize war, true. But it shares only the terror the soldier Henry experiences. We don’t see the confusion of his mother, his sister; we don’t hear the convulsions of his community. We hear the shrieks of Badb, Ireland’s “great gory goddess of war,” but not the division of a greater family of the nation. Eason’s not likely to pick up The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan, but I am glad I did. My heart and my understanding are both greater because of it. I recommend it to you, brothers, sisters. When we are divided from each other, we are all fragments.
Kim McCollum-Clark (@KimMcCollum) lives in Pennsylvania and teaches English Education at Millersville University. She is still, to quote Regina Spektor, “rummaging for answers in the pages.” You can read both The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan and Armstrong’s second book about Mairhe in the collection Becoming Mary Mehan.