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Monday, February 20, 2012

Growing Up Mixed: A Memoir About Intolerance

The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood
By Hugo Hamilton
Fourth Estate, 2003
ISBN: 0007149980
Rating: 5 of 5

               The Best View for Understanding Intolerance

Growing Up Mixed

Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of This is the Place and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered

               How sharp are the knives that divide. The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood is about the effects of both sharp and blunt instruments on the lives of children. Religion. Borders. Language. Wars. Culture. And, yes, Love and Hate.

                Themes literally seethe through Hugo Hamilton's work. Part of the reason for that is the story itself. The narrator is a child, the product of a severe Irish nationalist and a German mother. The parents themselves are creations of their time and place no less than their offspring are. Young Hugo is allowed to speak only Irish and German in a land that is increasingly speaking English. He is dressed in Irish sweaters and Lederhosen. The identities of some of his relatives are secreted away in armoires and others are flaunted as exemplary models. He is inundated by rules, rules, rules and they are modulated by a mother with much love to give in spite of her own story set in Germany of the Third Reich; her history is slowly revealed to the reader as Hugo grows in understanding.

               Told with a child’s stream of conscious, this memoir requires careful attention. The reader unravels this family’s truths only when the child can finally grasp them for himself. This technique heightens our understanding of how affecting such an upbringing can be. The language is poetic in character. So is the structure: One situation reminds the narrator of another connection and we begin to see how this character and this family are strung together and—hopefully—also begin to see how similar dynamics might have affected our own lives. For, though very particular, this story is also general, one that still reaches beyond its time and touches ours.

               It seems as if children tend to grow up speckled in one way or another. That makes the general premise of this lovely little book close to the heart of us all. We have all been there in one way or another, felt unloved, apart at some time in our lives. It is apparent that children who grow up half-and-half, a potpourri, will always be marked. Some will turn these hardships into the stuff of insight, understanding, and—in the case of Hugo Hamilton—great talent.

~The reviewer’s first novel, This is the Place (, has won eight awards. It, too, explores how one can grow up part of two cultures and never feel a part of either one. Harkening, a collection of creative nonfiction stories, is also an award-winner.  Learn more at:

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