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Billy Gogan, American: A Novel

by Roger Higgins

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TheBilly Gogan story is a fictional memoir told by an old Army general of his adventures as a young man.Billy Gogan, American, opens with recently orphaned Billy Gogan fleeing Ireland on the eve of the Great Hunger -- either because he is the son of a dangerous revolutionary, or because his cousin doesn't trust him around his daughter. Billy befriends a destitute Irish peasant named Máire and her young daughter Fíona, and together they endure a harsh passage to New York, America's greatest city. They get separated as they debark, and Billy searches tirelessly for them in the dangerous Five Points, ground zero in the collision of Americans, ex-slaves, and Irish refugees. Here, Billy completes his education. Already able to declaim Cicero and construe Aristotle, he learns voting fraud from Bill Tweed, the future head of Tammany Hall, and the numbers game from Charlie Backwell, Tammany's top bookie. Finally, Brannagh O'Marran, the beautiful mulatta daughter of the Irish madam of Gotham's finest brothel, teaches him about love. Billy eventually finds Máire and Fíona, and the three of them plan their future together. But that future is taken in a cruel stroke, and nothing will ever be the same.… (more)
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I came to this one not knowing quite what to expect, honestly thinking of the Five Points of Gangs of New York fame - which was the extent of my knowledge of the period. It delivered a much better look at the Five Points and so much more. The novel takes young Billy Gogan from a respectable upbringing in a respectable school from a respectable family to a lone fifteen year old boy shipped to America to make his way in the world on his own. He has to grow up fast, but Billy becomes the little brother to the chosen criminals in New York who he has befriended so he retains some of his innocence and teenage angst you would expect from a coming of age story. His smarts

We don't get to see New York at first though,because the first half of the book is Billy's fall from grace and subsequent shipping to America. He befriends a young widow and her daughter and they make the voyage together across the hard sea, becoming closer and closer so that he arrives in America with an adopted older sister of sorts and young niece who he feels responsible for. When he finally lands in New York, he has already had a hard journey but has a strong back and a willingness to work along with some luck and ends up making things work for himself. You can look forward to his friendship, in a Forest Gump turn of events, with the local bosses, including a young Bill Tweed of future Tammany Hall fame - who take advantage of his education/smarts and in turn show him the ropes of the Five Points.

What is great is that while there's great character development and a good story here - you also get a good history lesson because you can tell reading it that there was a great amount of research to get the culture of the era right - from the history of the time, to the clothing, to the ships' inner-workings, to the language. The language is what really takes you back though and drops you right in the middle of the masses who fled Ireland to land on American shores from the point of view of an educated youth who can talk you through the process of translating and learning about the Five Points while he's learning it himself. There's an interesting denouement that makes it clear there is more of Billy Gogan's story, and I can't wait to read it! ( )
  heatherlove | Aug 30, 2016 |
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TheBilly Gogan story is a fictional memoir told by an old Army general of his adventures as a young man.Billy Gogan, American, opens with recently orphaned Billy Gogan fleeing Ireland on the eve of the Great Hunger -- either because he is the son of a dangerous revolutionary, or because his cousin doesn't trust him around his daughter. Billy befriends a destitute Irish peasant named Máire and her young daughter Fíona, and together they endure a harsh passage to New York, America's greatest city. They get separated as they debark, and Billy searches tirelessly for them in the dangerous Five Points, ground zero in the collision of Americans, ex-slaves, and Irish refugees. Here, Billy completes his education. Already able to declaim Cicero and construe Aristotle, he learns voting fraud from Bill Tweed, the future head of Tammany Hall, and the numbers game from Charlie Backwell, Tammany's top bookie. Finally, Brannagh O'Marran, the beautiful mulatta daughter of the Irish madam of Gotham's finest brothel, teaches him about love. Billy eventually finds Máire and Fíona, and the three of them plan their future together. But that future is taken in a cruel stroke, and nothing will ever be the same.

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