"Will grab your heart on page one and won't let go until the end."
—Sara Gruen, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants
On a cold night in October 1937, searchlights cut through the darkness around Alcatraz. A prison guard's only daughter—one of the youngest civilians who lives on the island—has gone missing. Tending the warden's greenhouse, convicted bank robber Tommy Capello waits anxiously. Only he knows the truth about the little girl's whereabouts, and that both of their lives depend on the search's outcome.
Almost two decades earlier and thousands of miles away, a young boy named Shanley Keagan ekes out a living as an aspiring vaudevillian in Dublin pubs. Talented and shrewd, Shan dreams of shedding his dingy existence and finding his real father in America. The chance finally comes to cross the Atlantic, but when tragedy strikes, Shan must summon all his ingenuity to forge a new life in a volatile and foreign world.
Skillfully weaving these two stories, Kristina McMorris delivers a compelling novel that moves from Ireland to New York to San Francisco Bay. As her finely crafted characters discover the true nature of loyalty, sacrifice, and betrayal, they are forced to confront the lies we tell—and believe—in order to survive.
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Dublin, IrelandMarch 1919
The foul haze of whiskey and cigarettes was lighter tonight than usual — a shame the same couldn't be said of the mood. Not that this surprised Shanley Keagan. At nearly twelve, he'd performed in enough pubs to understand the patterns in a calendar.
Fridays were a sure bet for nice crowds, men eager to spend their fresh wages. They would sing and laugh with old pals, toasting God's grace shining down upon them. If in an especially generous mood, they'd even buy a round for strangers. And when they were hushed down enough to welcome Shan to the "stage" — sometimes a solid platform, more often a crate from the kitchen — they might mumble over the disruption, trading dirty looks, but by the delivery of his second joke, third at most, they were roaring with laughter, as attentive as parishioners at Easter Mass.
Mondays were the worst of the lot. Even Uncle Will, who was far from choosy when scheduling Shan's shows, knew Mondays were to be avoided. If there was a crowd at all, it was mostly customers addicted to the drink, or veterans just back from the Great War hoping to drown their memories. The few others were brooders in search of refuge from their wives, having no more interest in being nagged about finding a job than in actually doing just that.
Wednesdays, on the other hand — now, those were tough to predict. They could resemble Fridays as easily as Mondays, or fall somewhere in between. And on this particular Wednesday, as Shan stepped onto a splintered crate, he sensed precisely which it was.
Of the dozen patrons seated about, two were passed out at their tables. Up in front a pair of scabby fellows looked deep in conversation with no mind for anything more. The rest stared at Shan, their eyes right quick to judge.
"Hoi, now! Get on with it," ordered a grizzled man from his seat. "Or be Jaysus, bring on the dancing girls!"
Another shot back: "'Tis the closest you'd ever get to seeing a lady in her knickers. Aside from that ugly sister of yours."
Several customers chuckled, egging on a retort.
Shan needed to regain the spotlight before sneers could turn to punches and squelch any chance of a show. Of this he was well aware, even before catching a glimpse of his uncle.
Across the room William O'Mara stood at the bar, scowling between sips of his pint. The freckled skin of his bony face, normally pale next to Shan's dark features, was reddening to the shade of his patchy beard. Perform well, his firm eyes said, or I'll be wise to drop you at an orphanage, where you'll be sleepin' with rats on a dingy floor and eatin' rotten cabbage soup.
The man had spoken these words often enough that Shan could hear them in his mind. And he knew better than to ignore the warning.
With a loud clearing of his throat, Shan straightened to feel grander than his average build, ignoring the hollow ache in his stomach. "Good evening, ladies and gents. I'm Shan Keagan."
He had learned early on not to use his proper christened name unless he wanted to be heckled — "Shanley" being traditionally reserved for a surname. He'd change it altogether if it weren't among the few things left from his mam.
"I'll be entertaining you tonight while you enjoy your pints." Now that he'd gained their attention, he started with a reliable joke. "There's such a chill out, it brings to mind a tale of a terrible snowstorm. The drifts were so high one night, a priest and a nun found themselves stuck in a church alone. When the sister complained of being cold, the kindly father searched about and fetched her a blanket. Again and again this happened, but the heap of blankets failed to help. At last, desperately freezing, the sister insisted the Lord would surely forgive them for acting as a married couple to keep warm for a single night. Full of joy, the father agreed. 'Aye,' he cried, 'from now on, you'll fetch the blankets on your own!' "
Shan paused to read the audience. Only tepid smiles, but not to fret. Experience had taught him to skip to his impressions, normally the second part of his act.
From endless practice, he proceeded to reshape his voice into a colorful range of characters. Fists on his hips, he transformed into a harping Irish mother. A lick of the lips and he was a whistling Yankee, his new favorite for many a reason. With shoulders hunched, he became a dumber-than-ox Englishman.
Still, for all of this, he earned only a sprinkling of snickers.
His palms slickened with sweat. Insulting the Brits usually endeared even the hardest Irish crowd. Since late January, when the War of Independence began, sentiments against the Crown had ratcheted to a higher level — if that were even possible. Perhaps this explained why Shan sensed a swelling desire in the room to take aim at a target. And that was just what he'd become if he didn't switch course. A silly song would hopefully do.
In the warbling style of folk singer Eugene Fitzpatrick, he belted out "'Twas Sure I Fell in Love When I Fell into Me Ale." Nerves magnified cracks in Shan's voice, a growing curse of his age, and he found relief at finishing the tune — though none from the room's intensity.
The few sounds from the audience came from an old man being repeatedly woken by his own nasally snores, and from a lady giggling at a far table, where a scruffy man in a flannel shirt tickled her sides. She wore a dress as bold as her red lips, the sort of woman who, according to Uncle Will, charged for the pleasure of her company. When she leaned forward, her bosoms rose in large white mounds, resembling loaves from the baker.
Shan fought the urge to stare. He mined his memory for material and remembered Murphy, a made-up fool of a drunk. If nothing else, the tales could fill enough time to secure a free supper, his personal reward from the pubs.
His stomach growled as he launched into a story. He was halfway through when a burly man pushed back from his table and shot to his feet.
"What's that you're sayin' about me, boy?"
"Ah, Murphy," hollered an older man. "The lad wasn't talking about you. Sit down on your arse."
Murphy swayed, as if riding the internal waves of his liquor.
Shan forced a swallow. "Did I say 'Murphy,' sir? What I meant, of course, was 'Mickey.' My apologies for the error."
The man held a stern face but slowly reclaimed his seat. Shan sighed to himself before praying to the good Lord that no one in the room was a Mickey.
"Now, then," he tried again. "I believe I was describing the day Mickey awoke covered in mud and feathers, head to toe."
No one spoke out, a fortunate thing. Shan was about to continue when, once more, his belly grumbled. This time it brought a hunger so strong it jellied his knees. He tightened his legs to keep his balance, but the shift of weight caused a loud crack beneath his boots. Before he could adjust, the crate gave way and he landed hard on his rear. Laughter broke out in the room. He hurried to rise from the wooden floor, brushing grime and spilled ale from his clothes.
"What's that you were singing about?" a man called to him. "Something about fallin', was it?" The laughter spread, but Shan didn't rejoice. Embarrassment and anger formed a bitter reply on his tongue. The words churned and expanded, preparing to spew free. Just in time, he gulped them down, remembering Uncle Will.
Shan dared to look over. Beside the bar, his uncle and the pub owner were engaged in a chat. A welcome discovery, until Shan noted the sharpness of their eyes. Uncle Will shook something — a coin — in his right fist. The owner stood a good foot shorter, but in the manner of one not intimidated by height. As if to prove as much, he crossed his arms and jutted his chin. The challenge wasn't missed by Uncle Will, whose clenched jaw signaled a rage in the making.
Shan bristled, a reflex. His body was well aware of where those rages led. The scars on his neck and hip throbbed as a reminder, urging him to take cover. Alas, he had no choice. The last thing an orphan needed was for his only relative to be carted off and locked in a cell.
"You heard me, all right," Uncle Will said as Shan approached to intervene. "I called you a cheatin' bastard, because that's what ye are. The deal was for a shilling, not a goddamn sixpence."
The owner's nostrils flared as if swiped with smelling salts. "You're lucky to get that much. The boy would bring in a crowd, ye said. Would make me more money, ye said."
"And he bloody would have, if this place weren't such a hellhole. I've taken a shite in privies better than this."
"Uncle Will, please," Shan implored. But his uncle ignored him and spat at the owner, who burst into a fit.
"That's it! Get out. Right this minute, or I'll thump ye in the — "
The threat stopped short. Uncle Will's knuckles made sure of it by plowing into the man's face.
Shan reached for his uncle to coax him away but a bartender and another man moved in, pushing Shan aside. A whirl of punches flew. Barstools toppled and a pint glass shattered.
Two hands grasped Shan's shoulders. He started to wrench free, but a woman's voice entered his ear. "Shh, 'twill be all right," she said, drawing him away from the scuffle and shards. She was the lady with red lips and loaves for a chest.
The owner swung hard at Uncle Will's gut before ordering his helpers to put the rubbish where it belonged. Dutifully the men dragged Uncle Will, short of breath and doubled over, out to the street.
Shan just stood there, already dreading the long walk home. He wasn't dim enough to think a free bowl of corned beef remained an option. Around him, people returned to their lives as if nothing had happened.
Except for the woman. She swept passed Shan, picked up the dropped coin, and tenderly curled it into his hand. "You've got real talent, sweet lad. Don't let it go to waste." She gave him a smile that seemed heavy to wear before returning to the man in flannel, a fresh giggle in her voice.
That was when it dawned on Shan that he wasn't the only actor in the room.CHAPTER 2
Murmurs drifted up from the alley. They lured Shan to the window of his uncle's one-room flat, as they often did this time of night. Every sound was amplified in those dark, empty hours before Dublin settled in for sleep. Or most of it, rather. A few times a week the husband next door would drink through wages meant for food and rent, and he'd stumble home bellowing songs, promptly cut short by his wife's furious shrills.
Then there were the rats. They'd scratch and scamper well into dawn, between the walls, in nooks and crannies. They were nomads on a constant hunt for food, shelter, and safety. Same as Shan and Uncle Will. And those in the alley below.
The pane too dingy for a decent view, Shan tugged the window upward. Cold air shot through his thinning cotton shirt. The paraffin lamp flickered on the table by the bed. He rubbed his arms against the chill. His wool coat and sweater sagged on a rope strung over the coal stove. The garments, damp after his walk from the pub, released a musty smell.
Shan gazed down the back side of the building, a shabby stack of four bricked floors. A web of laundry linked them to the next set of flats. Each line drooped vacantly in the rain but for one. A widow from the second story had a habit of leaving her sheets out on rainy days, which was most of the year in Ireland. She would drape them like a canopy, attracting a small herd of vagrants, mainly young, from the shadows.
Shan would hear tenants in the halls and stairwell exchanging their disapproval, blaming the widow's friendship with the landlord — on the word "friendship" they would raise a brow — for leaving them unable to state a complaint. "We're doing these children no favors," they would say, "by encouraging a life on the streets. Many are there by choice, you know. They'll be tinkers and knackers for good, expecting the government to support them forever."
Their expressions matched the harshness of their words. But Shan was a listener, a studier of more than pitches and accents. And what he heard, as faint as a whisper, was the truth behind their unease: the fear, and the guilt.
No man wants a daily reminder of the hardships that in a blink could be his own, nor to carry the shame of being unable, or unwilling, to help those in need. Such burdens were easier to discard when not planted outside your window.
All the same, Shan couldn't help but look.
Beneath a roof of linen, the strangers huddled around a fire set in a metal barrel. They held their gloved hands over flames that glowed orange across their faces. All appeared to be boys, Shan's age or older. Orphanages favored infants and toddlers, as did parents willing to adopt — unless they were seeking free labor. The overflow went to local churches, where girls were given priority for meals and beds. Even in the house of the Almighty, beggars had a pecking order.
Already Shan knew this. He also knew very little prevented him from standing in that queue. The money left from his parents — no doubt the reason his mam's brother first took him in — had been spent long ago. And when it came to the government's weekly charitable dole, the few extra shillings his uncle received for fostering Shan hardly made him essential, as Uncle Will told him on a regular basis. One wrong step and he'd be out on the street, his future far more grim. Sure, he could read and write at a level beyond his age, but now, without schooling, without parents ...
At the thought of them, Shan felt the weight of their absence, as heavy as stone on his chest. More and more they were fading from his mind. Like people he'd only imagined.
He closed his eyes now and strained to summon his mam: her long auburn curls, her angelic skin. He could almost smell her talcum powder, a sweet lavender scent, and hear the rhythmic creak of her rocker. In their old house in Dunmore, on the coast of County Waterford, she would sway there for hours and read her books — a love she passed down to Shan — and she would send him a wink as he played on the floor with his jacks and marbles and wooden train.
Meanwhile in the evenings, his father — a doctor with silvered temples and a forehead lined with wisdom — would flip through articles in the Irish Independent and puff on a hand-carved pipe —
Well. Not his father precisely. Rather, the man Shan had known as his da. Back before the faÃ§ade had been yanked clean away with the discovery of a letter.
"Jaysus, Mary, Mother o' God. Are you heatin' the bloody neighborhood?"
Shan twisted around to find his uncle glaring from the doorway. "Sorry, Uncle Will," he spouted, and rushed to shut the window. He braced for a verbal lashing, not unlike those he'd received from his teachers, back before his performing schedule replaced schooling altogether.
But Uncle Will simply tossed a paper sack onto the kitchen table. "Open it," he said with a trace of a slur.
Shan held in place, knowing better than to trust a glimmer of his uncle's kindness. Same as the fairies from his childhood tales, it could vanish as quick as a snap.
"Go on," Uncle Will said. "Eat."
Shan had briefly forgotten how famished he was. He hurried to the table and emptied a U-shaped sausage from the bag. Half as thick as his wrist, it had a greasy sheen and light black crust. One flight up, the butcher's wife must have retired for the night, unable to stop her husband from trading the last of their supper for a jelly jar of moonshine.
It was one of Uncle Will's rare talents, brewing the concoction himself with ingredients bought with the dole. He called the drink "liquid gold." To be used only for bartering, he'd said.
From the current reddening of his eyes, however, it was clear yet again that no rules applied to Uncle Will. Not that this concerned Shan. His sole interest lay with the meat before him, worlds better than the weak broth he'd expected. Only from his proper upbringing did he find the willpower to fetch a plate, utensils, and a glass of water.
As Uncle Will hung his cap and coat over the stove, Shan took a seat at the table. To savor every ounce of flavor, he sliced up small bites and forced himself to chew slowly.
"Would you look at yourself." Uncle Will reclined in the chair across from him. He mockingly waved around a match and hand-rolled cigarette. "Eatin' like British royalty, ye are."
Shan kept his gaze low. Mealtime together was like wading through a swamp: one wrong step could pull you under.
Fortunately a distraction arrived in the form of a cry. The new tenants upstairs had a newborn girl who wailed, according to her mam, whenever hungry or tired or just plain fussy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Edge Of Lost"
Copyright © 2015 Kristina McMorris.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Kept my attention the entire time...Likeable characters and the historical links meshed within puts you right in the story and it brings it to life.
Loved it. Very disappointed when the book ended!,
This is a terrific story - The prologue grabbed my attention and the first chapter set the hook I couldn't put this down. I can only give it four stars because I need to know what happened to Sadie! I'd also like to know more about what happens with Shan, after the wonderful surprise he was given at the end.... So loose ends force me to rate this a four-star book. If a sequel ties up those loose ends I will undoubtedly have to revise this rating to five stars. If you like historical books with boot-strappin' characters I highly recommend "On The Edge of Lost".
Good movie material (remanisant of "The Godfather"). Many of the character descriptions could have been elaborated, howerver, there was just enough action and human emotion without relying on explisit sex or brutality to make it more interesting. The personality of the mother of the "adoptive" Italian family was so very chactetistic of Italians during that time period in American history.
Captured my thoughts and feelings in such a way that I had great difficulty getting back to my day's focus. WHAT A WRITER YOU ARE!
This was a marvelous book. The story seemed quite real to me.
Great story! I couldn’t put it down!
This is the first book written by Kristina McMorris that I have read. It won't be my last! Besides a great story line, her characters are richly developed, their stories are interesting, and the settings and environment are just fabulous. Great attention to detail!
In just a little over 300 page paperback book, a man's life story is told with surprises galore. This is an excellent historical novel. It includes: great poverty, finding and losing family, gangsters, prisons, a fire, entertainers, plumbers, gardeners, kindness, jealousy, honesty, lies, and more. The history includes Alcatraz prison, Ireland, and the USA. This book - full of fast paced twists and turns - deserves an A+++++++
What an excellent story! You wont be sorry if u purchase this book.
Hard to put down! Loved every minute of it!
I would love to see a sequel.. ..including a romance for Shan, for example..with all he experienced in life, he would be a wonderful husband and father!
I liked this book very much. From Ireland to New York City, I found this boy's life to be very believable. The story was well written and held my interest throughout. Very good characters and descriptions that grab you and hold you through the book, to the end. My only disappointment was the hero who saved the day in the end. I will not spoil it for you but I wish it had been someone else.
I enjoyed every part of this book.