4 out of 5: The Walking People is a modern story of immigration and assimilation. Beginning in 1956, Johanna and Greta Cahill, two young sisters from "the very western edge of Ireland," befriend a young boy, Michael Ward, from a group of "travelers," Irish nomads who travel from town to town performing odd jobs and selling an assortment of trinkets and remedies. At Johanna’s suggestion, the teenaged trio sails to New York City to seek a better life. It's a familiar story, but Keane’s lively descriptions of Irish country life and the immigrants’ working life in America, combined with her sensitive but never sentimental characterization, raise this debut novel above the conventional immigration saga.
In particular, Keane has a gift for describing the day-to-day working lives of her characters, particularly Michael's job as a NYC tunnel digger and Greta's job as a department store saleswomen. Although the immigrants’ Irish identity is never far from the surface, that identity is blended seamlessly and credibly into their ongoing struggle to adjust to a life in America. This is a contemplative novel composed of daily events and small changes. The momentum of the narrative flags in the final third of the book, but the slow pace gives Keane the time she needs to masterfully present this family's nuanced progression from Irish to American.