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From Barnes & NobleThe Irish Immigrant Experience
It was Steven Spielberg's film that brought the horrible scope of the Holocaust to a new generation, but it was Thomas Keneally's novel, Schindler's List, that inspired Spielberg. The experience of creating such a powerful document that reached so many people and brought a significant part of history to the present day made Keneally think about trying to do the same for his own heritage.
Five years later, he finished The Great Shame.
Keneally was born in Australia. His ancestors were Irish and, like so many of Australia's early European settlers, some were convicts sent to this British Empire outpost in the middle of the 19th century. In fact, thousands of Irish "criminals," many of whom had committed no crime greater than opposing the British occupation of their island nation, were banished from Ireland to Australia.
As Irish immigration spread, particularly during and after the famine of 1845, the Irish political prisoners in Australia also spread around the world, either through daring escapes from their exile or moving on after serving their sentence. Together, these two groups of people, who had left their homeland under very different circumstances, built Irish communities around the world -- from the north end of Boston to the Perth, Australia, shores of the Indian Ocean.
Keneally is first and foremost a novelist, and it is clear from reading The Great Shame that the telling of a story built on strong characters that evokes an emotional response is as crucial to his writing as is the telling of history. Keneally uses his ancestors to populate his story, which moves effortlessly from a personal family history to a sweeping narrative of a nation of people spread around the world. Like Schindler's List, this is epic history filled with human faces.
The "shame" of Keneally's title is as complex as his story. It is the shame Irish descendants felt for their "criminal" ancestry, a shame that was built into the Australian character and that only in the last two or three generations has begun to fade. But "the great shame" is also a lesson from history, to be shared by the English who drove people from their homeland through both malice and neglect, and, to a lesser extent, by the countries that received the exiles and immigrants and promptly deposited them at the very bottom of the social scale. And, as in his great novel of the Holocaust, Keneally's lesson is not just a historical artifact but a living moral.