Kitty O’Kane wasn’t just another book for me. The story incorporated a lot of stories from my mother and grandmother’s life. They were great storytellers, and I probably learned to speak listening to the two of them talk about their lives to each other, and at our frequent, huge family gatherings.
My mother did not have the easiest life; she grew up in the slums of east London, one of nine children and her father, who I never met, was a violent alcoholic. Kitty grew up in the tenements of Dublin but as soon as I started researching the book I found a lot of details I recognised from my grandmother’s anecdotes – I already knew, for instance, that no matter how grim the places they lived, the women scrubbed their doorsteps every day.
After all, what would the neighbours say?
It’s no co-incidence that Kitty’s father is a bully and a drunk. I couldn’t have imagined him any other way.
My grandmother took most of the beltings; but my uncle was deaf in one ear for most of his life, after getting beaten with the buckle end of dear old grandad’s belt.
Some of Kitty’s story takes place in Greenwich village just before the first world war, the time of the suffragette movement in the States. Kitty is arrested for throwing a brick through Macy’s window.
A reader once commented that Kitty seemed weak at the beginning of the book. But Kitty is learning to stand up for herself. She was a woman of her time – it’s an historical novel, not contemporary fiction.
I knew from listening to my mother and grandmother that women’s freedoms were hard won. My grandmother endured; my mother fought back.
The world turns. One of my daughters, now manages a pub chain in London where my grandfather used to spend all his wages, leaving my grandmother to find a few pennies to feed my mother and her brothers and sisters. It took time, those changes. Kitty O’Kane’s journey takes three hundred and fifty pages; in real life it took four generations.
Kitty’s own story completes the circle; it is about a woman who takes back her own life and discovers her own sense of being worth something in a forbidding world.
Kitty is like the Forrest Gump of her period; as America first started to look outwards, drawn into the first world war, having its citizens killed on ships like the Lusitania, its journalists first going overseas to cover major news events like the Russian revolution, she witnesses first hand the movements that shaped the world and shaped America in the early part of the new century.
But ultimately, Kitty will always be for me the story of my grandmother and my mother. Only recently have I come to realise just how tough those two women were.