November 16, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
A STAR CALLED HENRY
Viking, 1999, $24.95.
Henry Smart's personality takes its cue from his name, for he is given his father's name although his older brother who died in infancy was the first Henry Smart II. Over his mother's protests, Henry's father insists that this son too carry his name. Dead babies and children were not uncommon in the first decade of this century in Dublin, Ireland. The conditions in Dublin's slums were sure to produce more and more babies and more and more deaths every year.
Henry remembers his mother's grief over the first Henry's death. She believes that her dead babies become stars in Heaven, and pays far more attention to the stars than to her hungry son. "Poor me beside her; pale and red-eyed, held together by rashes and sores. A stomach crying to be filled, bare feet aching like an old, old man's. Me, a shocking substitute for the little Henry who'd been too good for this world, the Henry God had wanted for himself. Poor me."
Henry does not blame his mother for his misery. He pities her, remembering her lost children. "God took them all. He needed them all up there to light the night. He left her plenty, though. The ugly ones, the noisy ones, the ones He didn't want--the ones that would never stay fed."
The father of all these children means well and loves his family. He has lost a leg in some mysterious accident and this leg becomes an important symbol in the novel. It represents the crippled nation of Ireland and also its violent energy, making the relationship between the two concrete. Henry carries his father's artificial leg with him until the end of the story, when it becomes a symbol of his repudiation of his father's adjustment to the sorry life history has given him.
The father of this unfortunate family simply disappears one day, never to be seen again. Only the leg and the hungry mouths are left to remember him by. The mother continues to look at the stars, the children continue to starve and freeze, and Henry Smart decides to leave home and live on the cruel streets of Dublin. He takes his younger brother Victor with him. They survive by stealing and sleeping in the warmest and safest places Henry can find. "I was eight and surviving. I'd lived three years in the streets and under boxes in hallways and on wasteland. I'd slept in the weeds and under snow. I had Victor, my father's leg and nothing else. I was bright but illiterate, strapping but always sick. I was handsome and filthy and bursting out of my rags. And I was surviving."
Henry decides to better himself and his little brother by entering school. There he encounters Miss O'Shea, who later becomes his wife, a militant revolutionary, the mother of his daughter named Freedom, and a martyr to the cause of Irish liberty. Henry learns quickly, so quickly that he continues to learn after being driven from school by a nun who decides that the homeless boys belong in the orphanage, St. Brigid's. Henry "knew all about St. Brigid's," so he simply attacks the nun with his father's leg and escapes with Victor to the haven of the streets again.
Victor is soon dead of coughing up blood. He dies on the day the King is crowned and Henry wonders if kings and queens cough up blood, if people in London are killed by the city as people in Dublin are. It is also on the day Victor dies that Henry witnesses a revolutionary act, the burning of the Union Jack, by a man and a woman. The woman is the notorious Countess who has taken up the Irish cause, an inspiration to Miss O'Shea, who is soon to do the same.
Part Two opens with Henry as a revolutionary, a very young but effective one. The violent confrontations between the Blacks and the Tans are exciting material, and the history of the Troubles comes through the violent scenes. Connolly's death reminds Henry of his value to the men who fought for him: "He wasn't just a man; he was all of us. We all needed him. He'd made us believe in ourselves."
Henry's need to believe in himself, in his worth, had begun with his need to be recognized by his parents as somebody with his own name, Henry, not as a replacement for a dead boy. "What about me?" had been his question since he could remember, his plea for recognition. Connolly had once asked him, "Do you ever look into your eyes, Henry?" The answer is no. "You should, son. There's intelligence in there....And creativity and anything else you want."
Henry finds out from Connolly why the Irish are poor and why they don't have to stay poor. He says Henry should be fighting mad at what he has been given. He also makes Henry and his fellow revolutionaries believe that they can change the world.
So Henry fights for Ireland and Connolly. Along the way he falls in love with Miss O’Shea, kills many men, lands in prison, escapes, is captured, tortured, escapes again, and finally settles his quarrel with the powers that be.
The final acts of Henry create a satisfying resolution to the first twenty years of this Irish Superman's life. His father's leg plays a role in the decision Henry makes to start a new life, to refuse to work for the system that has taken up the same techniques of oppression that the British had used to subdue the Irish. Now the two political factions of Ireland were at war, brother against brother. Henry has had enough of war.
Henry decides to reinvent himself, to escape his heritage. "What about me?" he seems to be thinking again. "I'd start again. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know if I'd get there." His courage and confidence are still with him: "But I was still alive. I was twenty. I was Henry Smart."