A Slip of a Girl

“An economy of words” was a phrase I used to guide my eighth graders in the writing of poetry; I wanted them to seek the fewest but most powerful words to express themselves. Giff is a master at this in her sparing free verse novel about Anna Mallon, the title’s “slip of a girl,” whose family is scattered by hunger and the Irish Land War. Giff wrings volumes of pain and poignancy out of a mere 25 to 75 words per page in her work of historical fiction, much like Karen Hesse does in Out of the Dust (published 23 years ago and still a must-read). Anna brings to mind the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street – arms akimbo and chin jutting defiantly in the face of forces she’s been told are more powerful than she is. Land barons are heartlessly throwing out whomever famine hasn’t killed or chased away. Anna’s brothers Willie and John and sister Jane leave for America; her mother dies; and her father is jailed when Anna acts on a vengeful but understandable impulse at the home of the earl who wants to evict them. She must now look after herself and her younger sister Nuala, who is developmentally disabled. It is a harrowing journey to the home of an elderly aunt with a curmudgeonly reputation, but Anna pins her hopes on the bonds of family, no matter how distant. In a lovely turn, the aunt quickly develops a great tenderness for Nuala. Knowing her little sister is safe with Aunt Ethna, Anna chooses to return home after hearing organized resistance against land owners is gaining momentum. Her fight to reclaim what belongs to her family is not finished. On her deathbed, Mam had told Anna to keep Nuala safe, as well as the land and the house, but Anna’s Da said to his wife, “Anna’s only a slip of a girl.” Mam responded, “Ah, no. She’s more than that. Much more.” Indeed.

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