Marita Conlon-McKenna (1990 [2017]) Under the Hawthorn Tree.

I’ve been reading about the Irish Famine 1845-51. I’m in the privileged position of never knowing life-threatening hunger. Under the Hawthorn Tree is a children’s book and international bestseller set in 1845—200 000 copies sold in Ireland alone. A book of 150 pages, its simple sentences and style meant I could digest the book in one sitting. I’m looking for markers that make it a success where other fail, something I could make use of.

The cover by Irish artist, PJ Lynch seems bog-standard.  Author’s name in black block on the title page. Name of the story, Under the Hawthorn Tree, in white below it, where green hills meet sky, the orange roof of a white cottage and the twisted branches of (what I suppose is) a hawthorn tree. In the foreground, three children. Eily O’Driscoll, the little mother, on the cusp of adolescence with an arm around her brother Michael aged 12 and wee sister Peggy aged seven.  Covers conform to a certain genre which reassures the reader that when they open then biscuit tin there’ll be biscuits inside. The cover ticks the boxes, without standing out. Below the image of Michael carrying a sack the reader is told (an advertisement) in white font—The bestselling classic trilogy: Children of the Famine.

What draws the younger reader in? In a word, empathy. Each short chapter has a common theme. Chapter 1, for example, ‘Hunger’.

‘Mother was crooning quietly to the baby, Bridget’s eyes were closed and her soft face looked paler than ever as she lay wrapped in Mother’s shawl, her little fist clinging to a piece of long chestnut-coloured hair.’

The same long chestnut hair that Eily has on the cover. An author’s job is to put obstacles in the protagonist’s paths. The Great Famine which killed millions of Irish men, women and children, and caused millions to emigrate or starve to death is no small obstacle, but the history of a nation.’

With the potato famine and hunger, little Bridget dies of fever. She is buried under the hawthorn tree with its connotations of other worlds, but it’s also more practical. They can’t afford a proper funeral. Rent is due on the land and cottage. Mother goes to look for Father, who is working on the Work Relief road-building scheme. The children are left in care of Eily, but they run out of food and are evicted and taken in a group with others to the workhouse.

Eily engineers their escape. She believes their Mother and Father may be dead, and they must find sanctuary. It lies several days walk away, following the river towards their long lost spinster aunts their mum had rhapsodised about, who owned a cake shop in town.

They get food from a Soup Kitchen in Kineen, but that too is dangerous. ‘Soupers’ like the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang want to spirit the children away and convert them into Protestants. Children were still dying from hunger in Protestant and Catholic orphanages in the 1930s. But the battle for souls was genuine, and hunger a weapon mobilised.  

The children show get-up-and-go and Michael somehow catches fish and miraculously kills a baby rabbit by throwing a stone at it. We’ll call that creative licence. The potato crop failed in autumn, but the children travel in sunshine and collect berries and fruit. Young readers expect, despite the difficulties Eily, Michael and Peggy face, they will become better people, and they will make it to a place of safety. And some of the protagonist’s fortitude will rub off on the young reader. The first part of the trilogy does what it says on the cover.