Norah McCabe is a young Irish woman living in Five Points, New York City in the 1850s. Having left Ireland during the Famine to come to America as an immigrant, Norah is determined to work hard and escape a life of poverty. Her first venture is a used clothing store called A Bee in Your Bonnet which she runs with her friend, Mary, but when the purchase of an expensive dress leads to them both being implicated in a murder inquiry this proves to be an unexpected turning point in Norah’s career. Offered a job as a reporter for the Irish-American newspaper, she meets a man who introduces her to revolutionary politics – and finds herself both in love and in serious danger.
Cynthia Neale has previously written two young adult books about Norah McCabe, The Irish Dresser and Hope in New York City, which tell the story of Norah’s journey to America as a teenager and her first years in her new country. This book, subtitled The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York, is the author’s first adult novel and continues Norah’s story. The fact that this is actually the third Norah McCabe book probably explains why from the very first chapter Norah feels like a fully developed, three-dimensional character.
I didn’t always like Norah or agree with her decisions – she can be sharp tongued, impulsive and reluctant to take advice – but she is also ambitious, courageous and resilient. Some of the terrible situations she finds herself in could possibly have been avoided, which was frustrating, but I was pleased to find that she does learn from her mistakes and continues to mature over the course of the novel. While I’m not Irish, not an immigrant and not living in 1850s New York, I could still relate to parts of Norah’s story and enjoy watching her use her wits and intelligence to overcome the obstacles that are constantly being placed in her path.
As a work of historical fiction, the background to the novel has clearly been well researched. Life in the poorer areas of New York during this period was not easy and not always very pleasant and the author doesn’t shy away from describing the violence, corruption and prejudice that Norah encounters. But this is also a book about love, about the importance of family and friends, and about what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century – a woman with dreams and ambitions and the determination to try to make them a reality.
Although the pace was slow at the beginning of the book, there was plenty of drama in the later chapters to make up for it. I found this quite an enjoyable, inspirational read and I’m pleased to have had the chance to get to know Norah McCabe.
I read Norah as part of a Virtual Book Tour organised by Fireship Press, an independent publisher of historical and nautical fiction and non-fiction. For more reviews, guest posts and giveaways please see the tour schedule.