Elvira Woodruff,
Small Beauties
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

At its core, Small Beauties is a story of heartbreak and loss. It's the fictional tale of a single family, among many, who were displaced by the famine that swept over Ireland's potato fields in 1845 and forced countless starving, poverty-stricken people to emigrate from their beloved green isle.

But this story, written by Elvira Woodruff and lovingly illustrated by Adam Rex, focuses on a young girl, Darcy Heart O'Hara, who is too young to understand the disastrous events around her. She only knows that her family has been evicted, their tiny home burned, and they are headed across the ocean to a new life in America. She knows she will probably never see her grandparents again, and that, more than anything, breaks her heart.

But Darcy has an eye for small beauties, the small things usually overlooked, and she's sewn some of these tiny wonders into the hem of her dress, where they stay throughout the long journey to Manhattan. There, huddled in a cramped room while they prepare to meet their fate, she brings out these tokens and shares with her miserable family small memories of home: a magpie's feather, a bead from her grandmother's broken rosary, a chip of stone from their hearth.

And for one night, at least, it's enough.

Woodruff says in her afterword the story, though fictional, was inspired by the true travails of manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford's grandparents, among others. The story is short, sweet and touching, a reminder of the vital connections to home that can sustain people forced to leave. The large illustrations are painted in warm, subdued colors, giving an expressive human face to the O'Hara family's suffering and joy.

Small Beauties is a tiny slice of a very large story, perfectly condensed and presented for young readers who also might miss the grander scope of the Irish Famine.

by Tom Knapp
30 September 2006

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