Kathleen (Sunfire Romance #8) By Candice F. Ransom

There were times she wished she’d never come to America…

SF kathleen

Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover. Lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.

Sort of a historical counterpart to Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Willo Davis Roberts, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.

Each volume features a feisty 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.

In general, the longer, earlier books in the series focus on a general historical era, and the later, skinnier volumes use specific historic events as a backdrop, often dramatic disasters.

The Plot: In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I present a tale about all the things Irish-Americans love about their ancestry: death, famine, discrimination, and mysteriously missing snuff boxes!

I have to jest, because the first part of Kathleen is extremely harrowing for a YA Romance. I have frequently noted that the feisty young women who populate the Sunfire series are able to act independently (sometimes to an anachronistic degree) because they usually end up orphaned in the opening chapters. Kathleen takes that plot device to the extreme.

The book opens with the O’Connor family preparing to board a New York-bound cargo ship in Sligo, their passage having been paid by their British landlord to get rid of them after the eviction from the ancestral cottage in the third year of the potato famine. Kathleen’s three younger siblings and her boyfriend have already died of starvation and/or famine fever. She and her parents have made the 60-mile journey on foot from Ballinrobe with the clothes on their backs and Kathleen’s other possessions consist of:

A worn book of English grammar, and seven withered potatoes, not too blackened from the blight.

She had dug those potatoes herself, scrabbling through the snow-covered bog with stiff, aching fingers, day after day in the coldest winter Ireland had ever seen.

The scene at the dock is chaotic, as desperate passengers rush the gangplank; things don’t improve once they board, as “undesirables” (the sick and fareless) are put off the ship onto an awaiting tugboat. The O’Connors have had their fares paid by Lord Wyndham, and Kathleen’s mother sarcastically notes “Of course, he got off cheaply enough, since he waited until he only had three fares to buy, instead of six.”

Conditions quickly deteriorate below decks, where the passengers are kept around the clock, reminded by the British crew that they are valued only as ballast. Passengers sleep five to a berth, and only see the light of day when the hatch is opened to distribute the paltry daily rations of water and oatmeal.

Kathleen’s mother soon succumbs to the fever that is quickly spreading through the hold and is unceremoniously buried at sea. Her father dies a few weeks later.

While they had been told that the passage would only take a few weeks, Kathleen has calculated they have been at sea for almost two months.

After her parents’ deaths, Kathleen does at least find a sympathetic soul and friend in Patrick Shannon, a boy her age who remains optimistic about being the first in his family to emigrate and is eager to earn his fortune so he can send for his parents and siblings. Kathleen is unconvinced:

“Don’t you see, Patrick? I’m not going to America, I’m being sent away from Ireland. And that makes all the difference.”

When a storm comes up, the passengers suspect that the crew is going to leave them to die on the sinking ship, but instead they shortly learn the long voyage is over; however, the crew has rerouted them from New York to Boston, leaving the new arrivals stranded in an unexpected city.

Patrick is thrilled, announcing that with the Irish immigrant population being so large “Boston is probably just like Ireland!”

But when the disembarkment is even more chaotic than the boarding, Kathleen and Patrick are separated, and she finds herself alone in a strange city, the last O’Connor standing, and an easy mark for con artists targeting new arrivals.

Penniless, she wanders the shantytown that has sprung up along the wharf, where she is approached by a stranger, who pegs her as looking like “a determined girl” and offers her a business proposition:

“You work for me and I’ll give you two percent of the take. Plus meals and room and board. If you’re any good, I’ll up your take to five percent.”

Although Kathleen speaks some English, the slang confuses her

“What do I have to do?”

“Pick pockets.”

Has Our Heroine survived these excruciating trials only to finally arrive in America to become a common criminal?

Would she steal to stay alive? Yes she would.

“I’ll do it,” she told him.

There is actually finally some relief for the reader, as at least Kathleen has a place to sleep and something to eat on a regular basis; she also proves herself to be talented at picking pockets, although she refuses to steal from any Irish immigrants (the gang leader comments that the Irish don’t have anything to steal anyway). She has worked up a sure-fire system with 9-year-old Jimmy Groats, who she treats like a little brother, and is successful at evading the police at the docks.

Some weeks later, Patrick finds her there, having heard rumors about a redheaded female pickpocket. He expresses admiration for her determination to survive, but has great news: he’s has been hired as a stable hand on the estate of a wealthy Beacon Hill family, and they have agreed to hire her on as a scullery maid.

Kathleen has only seen the area around the docks since her arrival and is stunned by the size and variety of neighborhoods in Boston- and by the “Help Wanted- No Irish” signs she spots in the commercial district. When she asks Patrick about them, he comments that even though he couldn’t read the words, he quickly figured out what they meant, and that Boston was not the Irish paradise he had hoped. He advises her to keep her head down when it comes to comments about her nationality and says that the Thornley Family is at least willing to overlook their Irishness and Catholicism when hiring servants.

In the Thornley kitchen, Kathleen wins over the cook and butler with her willingness to work hard, and her ability to read English is quietly acknowledged to be an asset. She is also befriended by Pippa Thornley, the homely and neglected youngest daughter of the family.

At this point, the story becomes much more conventional: Kathleen is frozen out by the two other maids, Tessie and Emma, who regard her as a striver, especially after she’s promoted from the kitchen to the parlor. A love triangle develops between Kathleen and Patrick (who she just likes as a friend) and eldest son David Thornley (wishy-washy, already betrothed to a girl of his own station).

Kathleen does find an unexpected friend and ally in David’s Great- Uncle Jack, the black sheep who didn’t go into banking with the rest of the family, instead operating a small goldsmith and jewelry shop. On one visit he suggests that Kathleen seems like a natural talent and offers to train her as his apprentice, giving her some scraps of metal and stones to work with.

But Kathleen continues to be antagonized by the other maids and is confused by David’s intentions. Feeling more isolated than ever, she makes the decision to save her wages for passage back to Ireland.

This is one of the “long” Sunfire books (347 pages) so that necessitates the introduction of a number of crises: Pippa gets stuck in a chimney (Kathleen rescues her). She plays matchmaker for Patrick and Tessie, killing two birds with one stone. David wants to be a writer, but his parents don’t approve and give him a deadline to sell a story before forcing him into the family business. The parents discover their son’s romantic interest in Kathleen and dial up the pressure to announce his engagement to Charlotte Huntley. And of course, it wouldn’t be the 1840s if we didn’t have a side-plot about someone being framed for the theft of a valuable snuff box.

Things come to a head when David’s snobby sister Victoria interferes with her brother’s affairs and accuses Kathleen of stealing the brooch she made under Jack’s tutelage. Despite the goodwill towards her after Pippa’s rescue, Mrs. Thornley fires Kathleen, who announces she quits and tells off the whole family before leaving the estate through the front door (SCANDAL!)

Arriving back at the docks, she realizes that she doesn’t have enough money for fare back to Ireland (the Thornleys’ kept her brooch, so she doesn’t even have that to pawn); she decides to stowaway, but is then briefly kidnapped by PIRATES because there is clearly not enough PLOT; finally she is rescued by David, who has learned that he sold a story to a New York newspaper after all; he tells her that he is due to come into his trust fund on his next birthday and will support her dream of becoming a lady-goldsmith after all, and she accepts his marriage proposal.

While, as noted, this is an extremely plotty entry in the Sunfire series, Kathleen remains one of the most engrossing titles. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the immigrant experience in the early chapters and doesn’t moralize about Kathleen’s choice to turn to crime out of desperation.

Unfortunately, while it is one of the best books in the series, it is also the hardest to find! While the whole series is long out of print, some titles are easier to buy used than others, but Kathleen is definitely the most difficult and expensive to locate (my copy has extensive water damage, which is the only reason why I was able to afford it!)

I could speculate that maybe it had a smaller print run because of the grim subject matter, but I also wonder if copies were recalled because of a weird editing error near the end: there are two separate descriptions of the events of the morning after Victoria’s birthday party, one right after another. I could see the publisher regarding the volume as disposable, and just got them off of the shelves, with the next month’s title ready to replace them.

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7 Responses to Kathleen (Sunfire Romance #8) By Candice F. Ransom

  1. Jennifer L. Schillig says:

    Just wondering…have you covered Iggie’s House by Judy Blume yet? I haven’t turned it up in a search. I think that would make for an interesting review–it was the first tween/YA novel Judy Blume published, and it sort of shows in her style. (And her punctuation…there are a LOT of exclamation points and a shortage of commas.) But it’s interesting (and, sadly, still relevant) in that it tackled racism in a rather nuanced way for a tween novel of the late sixties…Winnie, our heroine, isn’t perfect in her approach to the first black family in her all-white neighborhood. She asks some awkward questions (“Are you guys from Africa?” “You’re from Detroit? Was your dad in those riots?”) and gets a bit of a white savior complex, and is furious when one of the Garber kids calls her out on it. She’s forced to check her own privilege when it comes to the race issue. There’s a little more nuance than most when it comes to the adults around her…there’s the racist country-club matron Mrs. Landon who’s outraged and terrified of these people in HER neighborhood, but there’s also Winnie’s parents, who are the type to say they’re not racist, but are tempted to move themselves when all this starts going down, and in the end aren’t willing to socialize with the Garbers because, after all, they’re not their kind. So it’d be interesting–and relevant–to review this book in the light of many of the conversations that are taking place today.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I was actually thinking about Iggie’s House recently, I haven’t read it since grade school. I think I a copy around here somehwere!

  2. siriharding says:

    I remember being embarrassed about buying and reading so many Sunfire romances, but I have to say that they ended up giving me a basic background about a lot of moments in American history that has served me well over the years. You’re spot on that the heroines often acted anachronistically, but the authors were generally responsible when it came to getting the basic facts right. All those romances devoured in middle school left me with a bunch of hooks in my brain on which to hang information from later classes.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! I agree, the Sunfires were really underrrated, both for highlighting historical moments and featuring a really interesting array of fully developed female characters.

  3. Melissa Snyder says:

    The plot twist is, Victoria was born on Groyndhog Day.

  4. Crystal says:

    Kathleen ended up far better than Nancy Sikes, who also started out picking pockets! I never read the book, but the first part of the plot (orphaned Irish girl goes to America) reminds me of a book whose central character is named Mary Katherine or Mary Kathleen. She is orphaned by the famine, and her closest sister dies as well. Mary K gets to America some way, goes through ups and downs (but no thieving) and then winds up married to a nice Irish boy and has a daughter named for her sister. This might be another lost YA.

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