As a young boy, Shanley Keagan was forced to eke out a living as an aspiring vaudevillian in Dublin pubs. Thanks to his Uncle Will’s drinking and belligerence, the two of them are no longer welcome to even receive the meager meals offered to the poor and hungry so it is up to Shan to provide for them. Thrilled when Uncle Will announces they are setting sail for America, Shan dreams of finding his biological father, an American sailor Shan has never met. But the voyage creates new challenges for Shan and sets in motion a series of events that will forever shape his life, relationships, and perspective. Sean settles in Brooklyn and becomes known as Tommy Capello, posing as the son of Italian immigrants.
Nearly two decades later, on a cold night in October 1937, searchlights cut through the darkness around Alcatraz where a prison guard’s ten-year-old daughter, Sadie, is missing. Tommy Capello, now a convicted bank robber assigned to work as a passman tending to the Warden’s greenhouse, is the only person on the island who knows the circumstances surrounding Sadie’s disappearance. Both of their lives hinge upon Tommy’s ingenuity, skill . . . and luck.
The Edge of Lost is the story of Shan/Tommy and how loyalty, sacrifice, lies and betrayal fuel his survival and search for the home and family he has always longed for.
Best-selling author Kristina McMorris is known for her sprawling, compelling, and painstakingly researched works of historical fiction. Her latest effort, The Edge of Lost, does not disappoint.
McMorris whisks readers off to 1919 Dublin and pulls them into the trials of twelve-year-old Shan, orphaned when consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) claimed his parents. Although Shan is abused by his Uncle Will, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, he fears the horrors that await him in the orphanage Uncle Will threatens to deliver him to more than Uncle Will’s predictable mistreatment. And tender-hearted Shan cares for the only family member he has left. He valiantly attempts to earn enough money to survive by traveling from pub to pub seeking employment as an entertainer. Shan is a talented impressionist and comedian who might actually have a shot at success if only Uncle Will could stop getting into drunken disagreements and brawls with the local tavern owners. Shan fantasizes about the father he has never known, who wrote to Shan’s mother but never managed to reconnect with her. Armed with the sailor’s photograph and last letter, Shan dreams about what it would be like to again be part of a real family.
When at last Uncle Will proclaims the two of them are going to seek their fortunes in the United States, Shan steels himself for the third class journey. Yet again, however, Shan is drawn into controversy and conflict not of his own making and, as a result, finds himself at Ellis Island with Nick Capello, along with Nick’s parents and sister, Lina. Fortunately, Nick’s father is able to convince an officer that Shan is actually Tommy and generous enough to allow Shan to stay with the family temporarily. That temporary arrangement becomes permanent — not without struggle — and the Capellos come to regard Shan as a son and brother. And embroil him in family dramas that play out over the ensuing years and eventually result in his conviction for bank robbery and twenty-five year sentence in federal prison.
Which is how he winds up an inmate in Alcatraz, a penitentiary reserved for prisoners deemed incorrigible. Celebrity inhabitants included “Machine Gun” Kelly (who served as an altar boy in the prison church), Al Capone, and Burton “Whitey” Phillips. McMorris was inspired to write The Edge of Lost while watching Children of Alcatraz, a documentary about children of prison staff who grew up on the island. Because of its location, the prison provided housing to staff members whose children were transported to San Francisco schools by ferry. Although they were prohibited from interacting with inmates, some of them broke that rule and by the time the documentary ended, McMorris “knew I had a story to tell, one of a hardened prisoner whose acquaintance with the young daughter of a guard would ultimately change both of their lives.” As always, McMorris thoroughly researched her subject — even taking a night tour of Alcatraz — and says she became “enthralled with numerous escape attempts outside of the widely known Great Escape of 1962.”
Shan isn’t a run-of-the-mill “hardened” criminal. Rather, he is classically flawed and, therefore, likable and empathetic. Shan had enough time with his parents for them to instill basic values — but not enough to navigate adolescence, when values and character are tested and become fully developed. He was, rather, thrust into a life of uncertainty and mistreatment, literally scrambling from moment to moment to survive. Thus, Shan lacks the worldly sophistication required for high-level reasoning but always wants to make good, ethical choices. He just doesn’t. So his well-intentioned decisions lead to disaster, an outcome he recognizes when, at one critical juncture, he “closed his eyes. He cursed himself for creating this mess, or at least for not seeing it coming. Somehow, no matter his intentions, he wound up putting everyone around him in danger.” But because he is, in many ways, an innocent kid who never fully grew up, it is impossible to resist cheering him on while following the past-faced narrative to see where his next misadventure will lead him. McMorris skillfully interweaves Shan’s story with those of the supporting characters, primarily Nick. The two develop a typically complicated sibling relationship punctuated by rivalry, jealousy, resentments, and unyielding loyalty. At various junctures, readers will find themselves hoping the relationship can heal and endure.
Back during Shan’s years on the road, he would have simply walked away. But now, unknowingly, Sadie had forced him to think of who he was before then: a boy on a ship . . . It made him debate which fellow he wanted to be.
McMorris again deftly transports readers into distinctly different locales during historically significant time periods — post-World War I Ireland, New York during the carefree 1920’s, and, of course, Alcatraz in the 1930’s — with vivid and engaging descriptions of time and settings. McMorris is best known for fiction set against the backdrop of World War II, including Letters from Home and Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, and considers the 1940s to be her “usual comfort zone.” But her narrative contains no evidence that she ever stepped out of that “comfort zone.”
The Edge of Lost seamlessly explores the themes of forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, and what it truly means to be part of a family and have a sense of belonging, giving no hint that, according to McMorris, “the story unfolded in a different way than I’d first envisioned.” Major plot twists apparently unraveled differently then McMorris originally planned. “Since I personally didn’t see them coming, hopefully most readers won’t either!” Those plot twists are not only plausible, but emotionally satisfying. Once again, McMorris delivers an entertaining and engrossing novel about overcoming one’s circumstances and hardships that proves, through Shan’s journey, that, as Glinda the Good told Dorothy in The Wiz, “Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”
You might enjoy my review of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, also by Kristina McMorris.