All Standing is history with a pulse. Kathryn Miles, in a heroic feat, attempts to unravel the threads that lead to the success of the Jeanie Johnston, a famous Irish famine ship that never lost a passenger.
Miles construes the world of the Potato Famine for her readers in a haunting manner, providing necessary context and backstory. Her opening chapter displays a frightening scene: “The stories [the farmers] told were as apocalyptic as they were consistent: a strange cloud of mist hanging over their fields, the overpowering stench of something rotten, beds of healthy potatoes turned into rivers of putrefied slime.” I had never considered the smell before, but Miles pushes all of the senses to consider the impact of famine. She unearths an image of famine that is raw and festering, one where potatoes rot below the earth like carcasses, but she also explores this fetid imagery with scientific explanation: botanists surmise that a destructive pathogen infected the potatoes. Miles surprises further by explaining that the pathogen is so destructive it was once considered as a biological weapon by the USSR and the USA. Her research is careful and thorough, and yet she never forgets that she is telling a story with this research. “Life was now marked by the kind of pestilence and plague suffered in the Old Testament,” she writes, using language that is well crafted without being overwrought.
Miles constructs her narrative through the stories of multiple characters, including a young farmer, Daniel Reilly, and his pregnant wife Margaret, who gives birth on the Jeanie Johnston. The birth of their son Nicholas shines as a beacon of hope throughout the book, as Nicholas’s story as an adult emerges time and again, juxtaposed against the journey it took to get him to America.
The forces behind the creation and success of the Jeanie Johnston paint a fascinating picture, and Miles is careful to consider all the hands that were involved in the ship’s magnificent feat. There is John Munn, a conscientious Canadian who built the ship; Nicholas Donovan, the capitalist who decided to buy a ship and make it his mission to get immigrants across safely in order to make a profit; James Attridge, Donovan’s cousin and one of the best sea captains around; and Richard Blennerhassett, an intelligent doctor who looks out for the lowly. Miles examines what makes these individuals so pertinent to the success of the Jeanie Johnston, and through her analogies and character sketches, it seems to be that a sense of justice, of rightness, motivates these men.
And though these men would sever their ties to the Jeanie Johnston through circumstance or death, and the ship met her own fate during a deadly gale, Miles’s book is a testament to both the unquestionable tragedies and hard-earned triumphs of the famine ships. It is a testament to how my forefathers got to America, and for that, I am greatly impressed.