With Great Sorrow
by Lisa Boyle
Genre: Historical Fiction / Civil War
Print Length: 404 pages
Reviewed by Erin Britton
By turns horrifying and inspiring, With Great Sorrow explores the necessity and futility of the Civil War from a multitude of perspectives
Casting an unflinching eye on the impacts of the American Civil War on both the battlefield and the home front, With Great Sorrow, the third book in Lisa Boyle’s The Paddy series, continues the enthralling story of Rosaleen and Emmett Doherty, two Irish immigrants who are carving a life of purpose for themselves in Lowell, Massachusetts.
The tenacity, bravery, and egalitarianism of the pair have been well established in the previous two books in the series, and their fight for justice—for themselves, for the Irish in America and those back home, for Black Americans, and for all those oppressed by forces beyond their control—proceeds at pace as they both become embroiled in events concerning the war.
It’s December of 1861. While Rosaleen and Emmett have been able to secure good employment and provide a comfortable home for their son Steven, they are not destined to spend a happy Christmas together. Emmett has joined the newly formed 28th Massachusetts Infantry—more commonly known as the Irish Brigade—and has to ship out to Camp Cameron in preparation for joining the fight.
Rosaleen intends to make her own contribution to the war effort through her “Signed, a Paddy” letters in the newspaper, but first she, Steven, and surrogate grandfather Mr. Joyce head to Boston to spend the holiday with friends.
The trip highlights to Rosaleen just how different people’s opinions about the war are, particularly when it comes to abolishing slavery. In fact, as the new year dawns, she’s left feeling deflated as to the chances of true equality being achieved even if the Union wins the war, and she also begins to suspect that those bankrolling her newspaper campaign are only doing so for self-serving financial motives. Even worse, the letters that she irregularly receives from Emmett are bleak and convey the vast suffering, illness, and death that he is witnessing on the battlefield.
As the war drags on, Rosaleen, Emmett, and those closest to them begin to question both their motives for supporting the conflict and the wisdom of the authorities who are supposedly masterminding things. Emmett has to contend with fighting the enemy and with the infighting among his own troop, while Rosaleen has to deal with being left behind and the various troubles that arise due to frightened people pursuing their own causes.
Things still manage to take a turn for the worse, however, when letters stop arriving from Emmett and no one can tell her what has happened to him. With nowhere else to turn, Rosaleen strikes a dangerous bargain that will allow her to search for her lost love.
With Great Sorrow is narrated from the dual perspectives of Rosaleen and Emmett, which allows Lisa Boyle to have wider historical events reflected in the microcosms of day-to-day life in Lowell and grim life on the frontlines.
From Emmett’s experiences of the blood and gore of battle to Rosaleen’s attempts to navigate an unfair and corrupt civilian world, Boyle doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities that regular people faced on a daily basis throughout the war. The tension and horror of the many brief battle scenes are palpable, as are the despair and worry of those who have remained at home. Indeed, Boyle does an excellent job of evoking the spirit and atmosphere of the period, both the good and the bad.
While the story of Rosaleen, Emmett, and their friends and acquaintances is obviously a work of fiction, With Great Sorrow has a clear and strong historical basis, as evidenced by information provided in Boyle’s Author’s Note at the end of the book. Both the dialogue and the action ring true for the period 1861–1864, and the events portrayed in the story could have plausibly occurred in real life. Given this strong degree of realism, it should come as no surprise that the characters featured in the story are just as complex and multifaceted as real people, exhibiting exactly the kind of duality of purpose that most would when faced with momentous circumstances.
This is neatly exemplified by the fact that Rosaleen and Emmett are both realists and idealists, having been molded by their experiences in the past to expect the worst of people but still fight for what is right. While Rosaleen is a fierce proponent of abolition and equality, Emmett’s motives for joining the fight are perhaps more closely linked to his hatred of the English than to his desire to secure freedom for Black Americans. Boyle has the many supporting characters present a host of contrasting opinions on slavery, too. As Rosaleen notes, “Slavery needed to end with this war. The abolitionists knew it. I knew it. But most of the rest of the country—including the Irish—weren’t ready to hear it.”
Given its setting and subject matter, With Great Sorrow is a powerfully emotive story that examines how average people can be shaped and influenced by the major events that surround them, leading some to pursue hugely worthwhile goals and others to focus on securing their own best interests. As with previous books in the series, Boyle puts Rosaleen and Emmett through a great deal of trouble and strife to safeguard their life together as well as the beliefs that they hold dear, and it’s clear that she has much more in store for them in the future, too.
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