We talked to Rosanne Parry, author of Last of the Name, which is scheduled to come out on April 2, 2019. The events in her historical fiction novel are from a moment in history that not very many people know very much about. She shared some behind-the-scenes context about her writing process as well as a timeline of the book’s historical background.
Considering the 1840s
Rosanne Parry’s family has been involved in the Irish music and dance community in Portland, Oregon for many years, and Rosanne had long wanted write a story about the Irish immigration experience with a focus on how music and dance have helped that community endure hardship. Initially, she planned to set Last of the Name in 1847 during the Irish Potato Famine. But in the course of her research, she learned that the famine was far more brutal than she had imagined, “more a genocide than a crop failure,” as she puts it. This left her with a daunting narrative problem. Her characters needed to make choices and take actions that affected their destiny. But in the 1840s, says Rosanne, “many of the Irish didn’t even choose migration. British landlords were free to evict any tenant at will, and many found it expedient to dump them on ships bound for America or Australia. What choices could my characters realistically make in those circumstances?” She knew she needed to rethink her plan.
Looking at the Civil War
Around this time Rosanne spoke with a librarian who encouraged her to consider the 1860s as a setting—largely because the students in the librarian’s district study the Civil War (1861-1865) in 5th, 8th and 11th grades. In many schools, students study only a handful of major eras in American history—Exploration, Revolution, Civil War, Westward Expansion, World Wars, Civil Rights—and only at a surface level. So Rosanne decided to write a novel that would explore some of the nuances and complexities of a familiar time period. She started delving into the histories of both New York City and Boston, towns that were teeming with Irish immigrants in the 1860s.
Civil War Draft Riots
Then she found the Civil War draft riots in New York City, an event she had never studied in school. She learned that the Civil War had the most protested draft in American history, far surpassing the Vietnam War protests a century later. She learned how wealthy Americans feared that the large immigrant Irish population—with its long history of insurgency against the British—would make allies in the African American community, with whom they shared the lowest rungs on the economic ladder. She saw how vulnerable Irish immigrants were to newspaper propaganda, which deliberately fueled racial divisions. She saw how little protection free African American citizens had even after they had made their way into the middle class. And importantly, she knew there were already books for young readers that tackled the draft riots from the African American point of view, written by highly respected African American authors.
Connecting the Dots
“So I went forward with a story that, in the research and writing, connected me to my own heritage and gave me a new perspective on the current immigration crisis,” says Rosanne. “There are many ways to grow in empathy. One is to carefully study the lives and histories of people different from yourself; another is to look deeply into your own history and see where you have common ground with others. I’m glad I took that look and I hope that readers of Last of the Name will grow in compassion along with me.”
Check out Rosanne’s timeline to learn more about the Civil War, the New York draft riots, and other events featured in Last of the Name.
Last of the Name: Timeline
1641: The first slave law was passed in England’s North American colonies, converting black indentured servants to slaves and automatically enslaving all black workers brought to the colonies in the future.
1775-1783: The American Revolution established the United States as an independent nation, free of English rule.
1799: New York passed a manumission law to gradually free the state’s enslaved black residents by 1827.
1845-1848: A potato blight, coupled with ethnic cleansing by the English government, killed two million people in Ireland and brought more than half a million starving Irish refugees to New York.
1860-1864: A series of extremely cold and wet seasons triggered another famine in rural Ireland, bringing many more Irish refugees to New York
April 12, 1861: The American Civil War began.
September 17, 1862: The Irish Brigade fought in their first battle of the war in Antietam, Maryland. It was Union victory but the single costliest day in US military history, with 26,000 men dead wounded or missing. The Irish Brigade fought in all the other battles listed here, taking heavy losses, far disproportionate to every other ethnic brigade in the North.
December 11-15, 1862: The Union Army was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.
January 1, 1863: The Emancipation Proclamation declared recognized enslaved black people held in Confederate territories as free. It also permitted the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army but did not grant black people citizenship or make them eligible for the draft.
February 1863: The first Union regiment of black soldiers, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was formed.
April 30-May 5, 1863: The Union Army was defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia.
June 1863: An Irish longshoremen’s strike in New York City was put down by federal troops, allowing black strike-breakers to replace the Irish workers.
July 1-3, 1863: The Union Army won the battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, turning the tide of the war against the South.
July 11, 1863: The draft went into effect in New York, with the Union Army choosing its first round of names of drafted men.
July 13-17, 1863: The New York draft riots broke out, resulting in more than 120 deaths and $2 million of damage from looting and fires.
July 18, 1863: In one of the first combat actions by a black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th fought in the First Battle of Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Half the 600-man regiment was killed in action.
April 9, 1865: The Confederate Army surrendered to the Union Army, ending the war. About 620,000 Americans had died, while 50,000 veterans survived with amputated limbs. Ten percent of the forces serving in the Union Army were black.
December 6, 1865: The 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing legal slavery in the United States.