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"Not for the faint of heart, Long's story is a gritty, grueling, and heartbreaking testament to one girl's unbreakable spirit."—Publishers Weekly, starred review When Martha Long's feckless mother hooks up with the Jackser ("that bandy aul bastard"), and starts having more babies, the abuse and poverty in the house grow more acute. Martha is regularly sent out to beg and more often steal, and her wiles (as a child of 7, 8) are often the only thing keeping food on the table. Jackser is a master of paranoid anger and outburst, keeping the children in an unheated tenement, unable to go to school, at the ready for his unpredictable rages. Then Martha is sent by Jackser to a man he knows in exchange for the price of a few cigarettes. She is nine. She is filthy, lice-ridden, outcast. Martha and Ma escape to England, but for an itinerant Irishwoman finding work in late 1950s England is a near impossibility. Martha treasures the time alone with her mother, but amazingly Ma pines for Jackser and they eventually return to Dublin and the other children. And yet there are prized cartoon magazines, the occasional hidden penny to buy the children sweets, the glimpse of loving family life in other houses, and Martha's hope that she will soon be old enough to make her own way. Virtually uneducated, Martha Long is natural-born storyteller. Written in the vernacular of the day, the reader is tempted to speak like Martha for the rest of a day (and don't let me hear yer woman roarin' bout it neither). One can't help but cheer on this mischievous, quick-witted, and persistent little girl who has captured hearts across Europe. From the Trade Paperback edition.
'Then I heard the most beautiful music, an suddenly I was outa me body an flyin. An I wanted te cry inside meself. I wasn't dead any more, I was lifted away, far away. I can do anythin. I can be somebody, I can be beautiful, I can be gentle, I can be rich, I can smell good. The world is waitin fer me. I can be what I want. Then it ended. An I was back in the room. I opened me eyes slowly an took in everythin aroun me. One day I'll be able te stop this. Nobody will keep me down. I'll work hard, an I'll be at the top, cos I don't want anyone lookin down on me.' Born a bastard to a teenage mother in the slums of 1950s Dublin, Martha has to be a fighter from the very start. As her mother moves from man to man, and more children follow, they live hand-to-mouth in squalid, freezing tenements, clothed in rags and forced to beg for food. But just when it seems things can't get any worse, her mother meets Jackser. Despite her trials, Martha is a child with an irrepressible spirit and a wit beyond her years. She tells the story of her early life without an ounce of self-pity and manages to recreate a lost era in which the shadow of the Catholic Church loomed large and if you didn't work, you didn't eat. Martha never stops believing she is worth more than the hand she has been dealt, and her remarkable voice will remain with you long after you've finished the last line.
Aged thirteen, Martha is rescued by the courts from the clutches of her evil stepfather, Jackser, and her feckless mother, Sally. After numerous arrests for shoplifting, a judge rules that she is to be sent to a convent school with the instruction that she is to get an education. Her initial relief at escaping the abuse and neglect she suffered at home is, however, short-lived, as she soon realises that there are many forms of cruelty in this life. As she says, 'You can have a full belly, but your heart can be very empty.' Ostracised by the other children for being a 'street kid' and put to back-breaking work by the nuns, she leads a lonely existence, her only joy coming from the books she devours and her mischievous sense of humour. Desperate for love and a little place where she feels she belongs, despite all that she has suffered Martha retains her compassion for others and still continues to hope for a brighter future when she will be free to make her own way in life.
Lilly and Ceily Carney are only seven and twelve when their mother is cruelly taken from them, leaving them at the mercy of the Church and the authorities. This is a terrifying prospect in 1950s Dublin, where it is likely that the girls will end up in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalen laundries – a fate they are determined to escape. When Father Flitters and the ‘Cruelty’ people arrive to take the children into care, Lilly and Ceily resist, and a riot breaks out. The girls are helped by kind Mister Mullins and his daughter Delia, but events lead to further tragedy and Lilly is left to fend for herself on the dangerous streets. Heartbroken, hungry and vulnerable, she looks like easy prey and it seems there will be no safe haven for her to find.
At 16, Martha collapses on the streets, suffering from starvation and exposure. She has reached rock bottom, but after Martha is taken to hospital, Lady Luck smiles kindly on her and she is given the opportunity to get off the streets for ever. Before long, Martha is on the way to leading the normal life she has so long dreamt of. She makes friends, begins to put the misery of her past behind her and even experiences her first taste of love. For her, love is a powerful feeling. She has never experienced real affection before and is now plunged into the complex world of love between a man and a woman. The intense emotion consumes her, for this is a forbidden love that can never be requited. After all, Ralph Fitzgerald is a priest, and he will never break his vow of chastity. This love brings heartbreaking consequences and changes the direction of Martha's life for ever . . .
On hearing that Jackser, her childhood abuser, is seriously ill, Martha is elated, thinking that finally she will be able to watch him suffer. But in the hospital she sees a frightened, lonely old man and realises with a shock that he seems to regret his earlier actions. During her vigil, she is joined by Charlie, her beloved little brother, then the ma and some of her other siblings. All of them have suffered greatly and it is clear that no one connected to Jackser has escaped unscathed. But as she sits with him during his dying days, other memories of Jackser come back to Martha – fleeting moments of concern and kindness, and a sense of closeness as he recalled his own tormented past in one of Ireland’s industrial schools. It is a vicious cycle of cruelty and loss that has played out, from which only her own tenacity and wit has provided an escape. Poignant, ribald, poetic and defiant, with its resolution of many unanswered questions about her life this is Martha at her best.
After a failed suicide attempt and recovery in the mad house, Martha is heading for France to be reunited with the one true love of her life. Father Ralph Fitzgerald rescued her from the streets when she was sixteen and was the first person to show Martha true love and affection. But their relationship threatened his vocation and he eventually fled to Africa to take up missionary work. Martha never got over losing him and now, after nearly twenty years, he has made contact again. She sets off on a mission to find him and uncover his motives for getting in touch. Does he still love her? Has he left the priesthood? Is he now free to marry her? She needs to know what the future is going to hold.

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