CLAIRE KEEGAN - SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE
“… was there any point in being alive without helping one another?”
I love novels that ask questions. Few ask them quite as sharply as Claire Keegan in Small Things Like These.
Keegan sets her beautifully and economically written “long short story” in the small Irish town of New Ross in 1985. Money is hard to come by. There is a thin line between survival and not.
Our main man Bill Furlong owns a coal business and has a wife and five children to keep happy. He’s economically comfortable but only just and for how long. When the lorry’s engine gives a worrying sound he thinks of all that his family might go without.
Furlong is a good man. He treats his family well. He treats his staff well. He treats his customers well. He is the nice coal man that every small town needs!
Furlong’s goodness seems to be traced back to a fatherless childhood where his mother is his hero and a Protestant woman of wealth took them in and looked after them. There are a lot of women around Furlong in this narrative.
I have a friend, the late wonderful songwriter Rich Mullins, who would say that the devil would settle for good.
As the book nears its short end Furlong has a spiritual awakening towards something far superior to good. At the Convent at the edge of town, a Convent that seems to be a foundation under the town as well, he discovers a young teenage girl being treated badly. How could that be? Furlong refrains from Mass as his views of the Church takes a hit.
Furlong has stumbled upon something kept from many like him. The Magdalene Laundries of which Joni Mitchell sang:
Prostitutes and destitutes
And temptresses like me
Sentenced into dreamless drudgery
Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?
As the crisis of Catholic faith rises for Furlong so his courage to do the right thing. He returns to the Convent to free the young woman and to bring her home.
It is Christmas and as they make their escape. As they walk through town they pass right beside the nativity crib. The Jesus in that crib as a baby would grown up to suggest that those who are connected with God are those who take care of “the least of these”. It would be beyond miracle if “Small Things Like These” is not intended to echo Jesus.
Keegan ends with a powerful epilogue for any time of year:
“Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?”
As I read the final pages of Small Things Like These I couldn’t help hearing a real Christ-like figure, Bill Furlough, preaching from outside the walls of the church, and indeed at the hypocrisy inside it, to call us back to the vocation of our humanity to turn upside what is wrong into what is good.
That is face of the Christian that should be looking back in the mirror. My friend Rich would suggest that this is better than good, that this being God’s conduit, to help others.
Furlong, the outsider preacher, is turning over the tables of the hypocritical insiders. Faith is not where we think it should be but in a coal man who has made his decision at whatever cost to stand against injustice because of real faith - “his fear more than outweighed every other feeling but in his fools heart he not only hoped but legitimately believed that they would mange”.