He remembered walking her around the grounds, always avoiding the lake and, at her request, the then-single grave.
They often stopped under the trees and listened to the wind whistle through the leaves, to the birds trading harmonies.
Do you hear that? she would ask him. That bird? Listen…there it is again. Despite himself, Atlas smiled thinking of how often No, he had not heard anything. Virginia would attempt to mimic it for him — high-pitched shrills and rolling tongue and out-of-tune melodies — and they would set out in its direction until he heard it at last.
— from Part Two: What the Water Gave Me
In 1845, the Great Famine struck Ireland. One of my characters, Virginia O’Kieran, was also born that year. The famine continued until 1852. Virginia, like many other (real) children, did not receive the nourishment a developing child needs. She is blind due to keratomalacia, a condition caused by vitamin A deficiency.
By the start of part two in 1922, Virginia is 76 years old. She is Atlas’s great-aunt and had a hand in raising him.
I visited the Famine Memorial when I was in Dublin at the beginning of my trip. It’s only a set of statues, gaunt and frail and distraught. But they are striking in their simplicity. Their expressions speak in ways words could not.
If ever I were to return to these characters after I finish the novel, it would be to write Virginia’s full backstory as a prequel novella. She was the first character I felt I truly knew when I was beginning to develop backstories. Her life was always quite clear to me, perhaps because I had to know her before I could understand Atlas. Virginia is special to me because of that, which is ironic considering her role in the novel is a relatively minor one. (I’ve tried to fight it and expand her presence in the plot, but the novel just won’t let me, much to my dismay.)
That’s not to say I didn’t extensively research how to write Virginia; knowing where I want a character to go isn’t the same as knowing how to get them there. The first hurdle was her blindness. As a writer, I want to be as authentic and sensitive as I can. I researched how to write characters who are blind, and how people live with blindness each day. I’ve read other novels with blind characters. I hope to portray Virginia as a woman in control (perhaps even when she shouldn’t be), but never as a woman debilitated by age or blindness. So much of her past was out of her control, so I imagine that by her eighth decade (and long before that), she has learned to exercise an iron-clad grip on herself and the world and people around her.
Of course I had to research the famine quite a bit as well. Firsthand accounts on the horrors of the famine were the best sources I found — mostly because they tended to be deeply moving. When I first learned about the famine (sometime in elementary school), the extent of it was not explained. I did not understand that this crisis was about more than hunger, more than starvation. I knew people died, lots of people. I knew it lasted a few years, but I hadn’t thought of it as half of someone’s childhood, as all of someone’s teenage years. I didn’t know the problem wasn’t just a lack of food. The landowners were still exporting food from Ireland while impoverished tenants starved and froze on the streets. I hadn’t thought of it as a mother trying to nurse an infant when she herself had not eaten in days; how helpless would she have felt as she watched her children waste away? I never knew the famine was rooted in religion and classism, or of its lasting effects on individuals and the country as a whole. I had a lot to learn, and each bit of information shaped Virginia and her family in some radical way.
It was humbling to stand amongst these few, simple statues in Dublin. They are the million Irish men, women, and children who died potentially preventable deaths. They are the millions who left their homes and families behind for other countries. They, like Virginia, are the survivors.