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Posted February 28, 2012
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In 1845 Ireland relied most heavily on one crop. Farmers cultivated grains, green vegetables and a variety of root vegetables. But those were often crops owed to wealthy British landlords for rent money if not owned outright. Those landlords would ship the harvested food to England at a tidy profit. Among all of this export, potatoes were truly an Irish tuber.
It was potatoes that saw poor laborers through the long winter months after everything else was sold. Boiled, roasted, mashed with garlic and butter. Potatoes formed every meal for families across Ireland. There are few other vegetables as easy to grow that are as filling and nutritious as a potato. The only real problem was that potatoes could not last from season to season. By May the potato stores were gone and the Hungry Months began; poor farmers and their families had to look for food elsewhere sometimes scavenging, sometimes begging.
It was not an ideal way of life, but it worked. Until 1845 when a strange blight struck the potatoes near harvest. Once dug up, the potatoes turned black for no apparent reason. Were the little people aiming to take the potatoes for themselves? Were the farmers being punished for wasting the glut of potatoes from the year before?
In 1845 no one knew what devilry was work. The only certainty for most farmers was that the Hungry Months were going to last much longer than usual, but even then no one knew the Hungry Months would last five years. No one knew the Great Irish Famine would kill one million people from starvation and disease while driving another two million to emigrate.
Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti was the 2002 winner of the Sibert Medal as, according the ALA, "the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year" (think Newbery awards but only open to non-fiction books). Happily, in this case distinguished does not mean stodgy or dense.
Bartoletti's writing is straightforward and absorbing while conveying a wealth of information. Black Potatoes touches upon the obvious: the importance of the potato to Ireland, what caused the potatoes to turn black (a disgusting fungus that flourished in an unusually rainy planting season), and what happened when the potatoes failed. While looking at these broad historical strokes, Bartoletti introduces readers to Irish history and politics (circa 1845) with England and the United Kingdom while also describing the motivations that led so many to leave Ireland (and the conditions they faced on the long journey and at their final destinations).
A variety of primary source research lends an informal tone Black Potatoes and provides personal accounts of a variety of Irish men and women who experienced the famine first hand. Bartoletti brings a bleak period of history to life with aplomb and just the right amount of humor and compassion. Illustrations from period newspapers like the one seen on the cover lend even more authenticity to an already rich text. An eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the period and a must read for history buffs.
Possible Pairings: From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, New York: A Short History by George J. Lankevich
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