Monday, May 20, 2019

"Faith is the most peculiar thing." Thoughts On Finishing Niall Williams' History of the Rain,

The first part of this post is really for people who have read the book.  Not because it gives
anything away, but because it's my attempt to distill the themes of the book, without really offering examples that might be a little more interesting  to someone who hasn't lived through the history of Virgil Swain and Mary McCarroll.  (Well, in the end,  I couldn't do it without a couple of examples.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams is about the rain, the river, and the sea - and the water that moves from one to the other to keep the cycle going.  It's about the salmon that live in the river and the sea and return.  It's about fathers.  Fathers and sons and fathers and daughters and how, to know oneself,  one needs to know who your fathers (and to a lesser extent) mothers and grandparents were.  This, of course, overlaps the theme of rain, river, and sea being all of the same water.   Your identity is like the water in the rain that goes into the rivers, that flow into the sea, and then returns back as rain.  The whole of part one, chapter 12:
"Your blood is a river." (p. 99)

Mothers aren't ignored in this novel, and Williams acknowledges their contribution to one's identity, but in Ruth Swain's (the narrator) family, the women do the practical work of keeping things together - getting money, getting food on the table, nurturing poets.   Whole chapters are devoted to the paternal great grandfather, grandfather, and particularly the father of the narrator.  The maternal antecedents get much less attention.   Chapter 13, on page 100, a third of the way into the book,  begins, for instance,
"The drizzling dawn of my father's fourteenth birthday.  Abraham appeared in the big droughty bedroom and shook his son awake."  (p. 100)
Propitiously, he takes him to the river to go salmon fishing.  But it's not until the beginning of Chapter 14, that we learn
"When my father told it, they caught a salmon that day.
I think it is an imagined one, but I didn't say so.
From the look on y face he could tell.  'O Ruthie, you don't believe anything,' he said and crumpled his face to a small boy's dismay.
I do, Dad.  I do.  I believe everything." (p. 103)
Yet the mother's side doesn't start until part 2 chapter 1.  While it goes further back, there's much less detail on the immediate antecedents than on the father's side.
"By the year 520 Tommy says there were 9,046 Partholonians in Ireland.  Then in one week in May a horde of midges came, brought a plague and wiped them all out.
Except for one.
Tuan MacCarrill survived by becoming a salmon.
Fact.  It's in the History of Ireland." (p. 159)
If you remember Ruth's mother's name from up top - Mary McCarroll - it makes a little more sense.  And this apparently is part of Irish myth/history.  If you didn't remember her name, you're like me.  I had to start the book over again after I finished to catch the early parts where people and places were referenced that I had no context for. But which the book eventually fills in.

The book is about community - specifically the town of Faha,  Clare County, Ireland.  It's about how the people care for each other like family - not always getting along, but being there when needed.  A thought occurred - I will have to pay careful attention to see if it's accurate - that most books are about the people who leave, who go away and strike out on their own in new places.  This book is about the people who stay behind in the waterlogged town along the river Shannon.

The modern world of capitalism is kept at bay in the cities.  We hear about the impacts of the Irish bank failures, but in Faha the father can be a poet with no income and be respected for that.

It's about stories.  Stories are to families what the water is to the river.   The meaning in people's lives come from the stories  of their parents and grandparents  - about truths, what people remember, not necessarily what actually was.  About poetry and novels, about books and their writers and readers.  The same pattern here among the books one has read and their affect on what one writes, as the rain and river and sea, and grandparents and parents and oneself.

It's about knowing  - science, stories, faith, religion, God, literature, nature.   It's about fate and one's ability to shape one's own life.

It draws no clear lines, there are no winners and losers.  Everyone shines at some point and suffers at others.

It slowly tells us about the minute details that cumulatively make up one's life.  It reminds me of Clifford Geertz' methodology of thick description, for anthropologists to use to find the meaning of life in a community they are studying.

And to make the journey easier, the writing is exquisite.  It's like dropping into another country (well, I guess I was) where it takes a while to get used to the rhythms and cadence of the language and the way things are phrased.  The rich down-to-earth details kept me connected.

For example he writes about Mrs. Quinty, the teacher who saw promise in Ruth's writing and comes visiting when Ruth is ill to comfort and encourage her.  Mrs. Quinty's husband was gone.  (Be sure to read to the last sentence of the quote.)
"If Mr. Quinty had Passed On it would have been better.  If he had Gone to His Reward, Mrs. Quinty would cope;  she suited widowhood, and had the wardrobe.  But as it was, despite Tommy Quinty being heavily pregnant with eighteen years of Victoria Sponge, Lemon Drizzle, Apple Upside Down, Rhubarb Custard Tart and Caramel Eclairs, a brazen long-legged hairdresser called Sylvia in Swansea, Wales, managed to overlook the Collected Cakes and see only the black curls of the same Tommy.
He stopped in for a Do, Nan says, and he's not Done yet." (pp. 9-10)
The sound of the stories and the language is from an older time, so when the reality of things like wi-fi flow by, it's a bit startling that this all takes place recently.

While this book is about a small rain soaked river town in Ireland, it's about every human community and it covers many themes of importance to everyone everywhere.  I started this post because of this quote about faith which I think we could all benefit from copying and passing out to people with faith in all varieties of beliefs.
"Faith is the most peculiar thing.  It's Number One in human mysteries.  Because how do you do it?  Where do you learn it?  For the Believers it doesn't matter how outlandish or unlikely the thing you believe in, if you believe it, there's no arguing.  Pythagoras's early life was spent as a cucumber.  And after that he lived as a sardine.  That's in Heraclitus.  That's what he believed*.  Besides the east bank of the River Cong in Mayo was a Monks' Fishing House and the monks laid a trap in the river so that when a salmon entered it a line was pulled and rang a little bell in the monks' kitchen and although there were strict laws forbidding any traps nobody ever stopped the monks because they knew the monks believed the salmon were Heaven-sent and even unbelievers don't want to tax Heaven.  Just in case.  That's in The Salmon in Ireland.  Birdie Clohessy believes her weight is all water.  Sean Conway believes the Germans are to blame for most things.  Packy Nolan that it was the red M&Ms gave him the cancer.  With faith there's no arguing." (pp. 191-192)
*The Pythagoras reference is partly backed up here, but as I read it all, Heraclitus seems to have made up the vegetable and the fish to make light of Pythagoras.  I wanted to give you a Dunning-Kruger reference, but this Irish Times article seemed more appropriate given the book's locale.  And a little more, here's from the American Psychological Association.

I also wanted to write here about the importance of fathers, but I'll save that for another post.  Enough for now.


  1. Thanks, Steve. (giving this another go)

    To know one's family is difficult, Steve. So much is bound to rootedness and the lost world of our pasts, both uneasily entered and easily misunderstood.

    To the work of knowing our father and his father and still another, I am making that effort; yet only last week I discovered a part of my own father's life that left me newly in awe of the man. I was researching WWII National Registration records (for the draft) and I found my father's card. Nothing too unusual – always was a skinny guy – but then, on the margin, in another hand, were two cursive words that instantly bridged his passing.

    Two words -- Conscientious Objector -- my father.

    I didn't know. Out of 34.5 million men registered for the draft in WWII, only 77,000 men were CO in this last, good war. My father was studying to become a Lutheran clergyman in my mother’s Augustana Lutheran (Swedish) Church. His mother’s father was a pacifist, a man whose family fled Prussian-annexed Denmark after Bismark’s 1871 Proclamation of the Empire of Germany in Versailles.

    I have so much respect for my father, close and so work-absent from me. And I continue to find how incredible his mother was in keeping him set in a path to peace while growing up in the violent, father-drinking madness he knew. You could say it all sounds way too Irish.

    Gene and I are off to the Irish Ambassador's house on my birthday (of all things) to hear readings from a new work by Joseph O’Connor. It’s a connection made while Gene was director of a national Irish service organisation.

    I’m much closer to my own people-before-me here in the past-lands Williams writes of. I am beginning to unearth stories silenced by a distance we Americans experienced in our own ‘middle passage’. I am as a boy who must know my father's, my mother's, history.

  2. And by the way, a high point in your lit review today. Well done! I (just about, almost there) want to read the book.

  3. Glad you liked the notes. I was impressed by the book and so were most of the book club last night. It's not a book with a strong plot line in the traditional sense. There's lots of struggle. But Williams has constructed are beautiful study of a community and a family that is both uniquely Irish yet universal.


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