The Music of What Happens

A Novel of Chicago in the 1800's

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
458 Pages
Reviewed on 04/28/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

The Music of What Happens by Charles Fanning is a delightful tale of Irish immigrants in Chicago, their difficulties assimilating into the new American society, and their desire to preserve the culture and especially the music of their homeland. One thing few Irish immigrants seemed capable of letting go of was their intense desire for Irish freedom from their English overlords and independence as a nation. John and Eileen O’Malley had left their beloved homeland for the Chicago south-side neighborhood of Bridgeport, at the height of the great potato blight and the famine that ensued. Their three children, Jimmy, Mary, and Margaret, would grow up with tales of magic, music, and legends from back home, plus an enduring love for their beloved Ireland. Life in 1880s Chicago was hard and unrelenting, especially for the Irish who had an undeserved reputation of brawn but no brains. The O’Malley parents do their utmost to ensure their children will have opportunities they have been denied but in this cruel, cold city, tragedy and pain can often strike out of nowhere. It is their shared faith, traditional Irish music, and poetry that ultimately bind this family and community together.

The Music of What Happens is more than just an immigrant tale. It is a close and personal social documentary about immigrant life in America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Author Charles Fanning has chosen an Irish family and an Irish community to portray the struggles that all new immigrants to the United States must have faced on their arrival. The scenarios painted by the author could have easily been applied to Italian, German, or indeed any immigrant groups of the time. Each brought with them their unique culture, language, and customs. Like the O’Malleys, each immigrant group tended to cluster together in whatever city they ended up in, both for safety but also for joint succor. For the Irish, their music, their fierce determination to help free their homeland, even from far away, from English subjugation, and their strong faith made them hard-working and determined to improve their lot despite the constant tragedies that beset them. I loved the frequent use of Irish words and expressions which gives the prose a beautiful lyrical quality. I particularly appreciated Jimmy’s reaction to the African Americans he encountered. He understood and empathized deeply with their plight, aware that he and his fellow Irish had a better deal than those previously enslaved. Music and Jimmy’s ability with the fiddle played a central role in defining who he was. Music and poetry from the “old country” played such a vital role in comforting and giving hope to a population beset by hardship and tragedy regularly. The reality that corruption and greed, the motivating factors of those who entered public service, also extended to those Irish who were organizing assistance to their fellow countrymen back home in seeking independence, was both sad and a reflection of the maxim: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As a social commentary of the times, this book is both very readable and extremely enjoyable. I highly recommend it.