Saturday, March 14, 2015

Tower of Tears - an Irish immigrant novel by Rhoda D'Ettore

With St. Patrick's day approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to feature a couple of authors exploring the Irish and Irish-American experience throughout history. Today I am featuring Rhoda D'Ettore, the author of the tear-jerking, heart-wrenching and at the same time side-splitting humorous novel Tower of Tears. What got my attention was the setting - 1820 Philadelphia, the city of my youth.  The dynamic plot chronicling the misfortunes of an ordinary Irish colleen kept me hooked.

MJN: For Tower of Tears, you chose Philadelphia is the destination for your long-suffering Irish heroine.  I'm glad that you chose that city, because I happen to love it.  I went to college in Philadelphia in 1990s, at the height of Celtic Renaissance, no less, so you could feel the Irish spirit in the air.  Also, Philadelphia has symbolic significance, as it's the city where the Constitution was signed, so it held a certain promise to all aspiring Americans.  Ironically, the "all men created equal" provision did not cover Irish women.   

RD: I chose the location of Philadelphia because that is where my Irish, Italian and German ancestors called home when they arrived in America. I live just across the Delaware River in New Jersey, yet even as a child I was fully aware of the Irish section on "Two Street". In both Tower of Tears and Newborn Nazi, I pay homage to my ancestors by using the real names of those who went before me. The Sparks Shot Tower discussed in the book is a historical landmark known to all in South Philadelphia. Although it had no real connection to my family, I believe it symbolized the good and bad of America. The company manufactured bullets for wars which caused some to fall and some to become victorious. Not all of those arriving in America found the promised land, just as not all of those carrying a Sparks' shot pellet would survive the wars.

MJN: Most people are familiar with the term "Irish wake", referring to a family member going to the New World to make money, though a favorable outcome was never guaranteed.  Usually the departing relative was a man.  In this instance, it's a woman. Clearly, Jane bit off more than she could chew. Do you believe that any marriage can survive such a separation?  Modern relationship gurus try to turn people off long-distance relationships.

RD: I actually had an Irish immigrant ancestor named Jane Lindsay who arrived in Philadelphia in 1820. She came alone, but her husband arrived later. I found this to be a bold undertaking for such a young woman and needed to tell a story which may have resembled some women of the time. Jane's journey was fictionalized for dramatic affect yet it could have happened. Many of the things she suffered probably did happen, and I believe that those of us today can appreciate our own lives when we compare hardships of those of the past.

Having had a long distance relationship with an army infantryman, I can attest that long distance relationships are difficult. However, today's technology makes them much easier to endure than those of the past. During the time frame of Tower of Tears, the fear of divorce and eternal damnation is what kept couples together. Today we are privileged to stay together for love and desire, but long distance relationships are not for everyone. It takes communication and trust. Ask any military wife whose husband deploys. They will tell you that separation is an emotional roller coaster, and the reunion with their spouse makes it all worth it. 

MJN: In 1820, as a pregnant Irish immigrant in an Anglo-Saxon dominated world, Jane did not have many options.  Almost two hundred years later, many modern women still find themselves feeling trapped, worthless and helpless.  They stay in abusive relationships and succumb to sexual harassment at work, even though they have so many rights on paper.  Do you think it's still a man's world, or is it that some women lapse into this sort of "learned helplessness?"

RD: I think it is both. It is still a man's world, but even the most powerful man can be taken down by a woman. How many politicians and televangelists have been toppled by sex scandals? Abuse is a cycle, and unfortunately becomes a comfort zone for some. Rights on paper do nothing to protect women. If a man wants to hurt a woman, he will do it--- restraining order or no restraining order. What is the abused woman supposed to do to the wife beater? Give him a paper cut with a court order?  

In Tower of Tears, I tried to show women's helplessness created by the laws of the land. Women were the property of the husband. They could not own land or businesses, and most astonishingly, they could not be legally raped. Despite the continued inequalities, women are much better off today than in any time of the past. However, abuse, sexism, racial discrimination and other prejudices are universal themes that can connect readers with the stories. It is because some women feel trapped or suffer abuse today, that the reader can understand and empathize with Jane.

MJN: Several reviewers commended on the element of humor in your novel, and I agree with them.  It's a distinctive trait of Irish - and Russian - literature, laughter through tears.  Humor does not minimize the tragedy.  On the contrary, it emphasizes it.

RD: I am very sarcastic by nature and infuse this into all of my works. Sometimes readers understand it, sometimes they do not. I think the humor brings the characters to life, making them real. I grew up in a very small home as the fourth of five children. Each of us was completely different from the others, but all tried to outwit each other. When I write, I usually pick a sibling and give the character his or her traits. Then I imagine what kind of smart Alec remarks my brother or sisters would make.  Katie and Richard's conversations in Tower of Tears were inspired by the type of sarcastic banter I have with my own brother. And Eva was based on my mother who constantly tells us all the news she reads or sees on television.

MJN: With the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 approaching, do you think there is going to be another wave of Irish revival in America?

RD: Anniversaries are an important part of reliving the past. I love visiting festivals that embrace traditions and provide education which allow those same traditions to be appreciated by those of other cultures. Perhaps if the Easter Rising is promoted enough in a "One Century Later" type of campaign, a new interest in Irish heritage will prevail. Unfortunately, I think too many Americans look to St. Patrick's Day as their only Irish experience. We have simplified a complicated past of struggles, faith and sacrifice to shamrocks, green beer and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" tee shirts. I would love for the 1916 uprising to cause a revival of the Irish.

No comments:

Post a Comment