Synopses & Reviews
As a young boy, growing up in Dublin, Hugo Hamilton struggles with the question of what it means to be speckled. The speckled people are, in his father's words, "the new Irish, partly from Ireland, partly from somewhere else." His father, a fierce nationalist, demands that his children speak Irish. His mother, a soft-spoken woman marked by her family's refusal to accept Nazi anti-Semitism, talks to her children in the language of her homeland, Germany. Hugo wants to speak English. English is, after all, what all the other children in Dublin speak. English is what they use when they hunt him down in the streets and call him "Eichmann," as they bring him to trial and sentence him to death at a mock seaside court.
Surrounded by fear, guilt, and frequently comic cultural entanglements, Hugo tries to understand the differences between Irish history and German history and to turn the strange logic of what he is told into truth. It is a journey that ends in liberation but not before the long-buried secrets at the back of the parents' wardrobe have been laid bare.
In one of the finest books to have emerged from Ireland in many years, the acclaimed novelist Hugo Hamilton has finally written his own story a deeply moving memoir about a family's homesickness for a country they can call their own.
"[A] beautiful memoir....There is much in this Irish memoir that's familiar to the genre....But the book is never cliched, thanks largely to Hamilton's frankly poetic language and masterful portrait of childhood....By turns lyrical and elegiac, this memoir is an absorbing record of a unique childhood and a vanishing heritage." Publishers Weekly
"Hamilton writes well and knows the secrets of narrative propulsion, but his story does not always engage or convince." Kirkus Reviews
"The rare quality of this memoir owes much to [Hamilton's] novelistic skills, not least his handling of the child's point of view throughout, with its luminously comprehending attentiveness to adult behavior....[T]he cumulative effect is to elevate an act of scrupulous remembering into a work of art." The New York Times Book Review
"A fine reminder that there are many ways of being Irish." New York Newsday
"A beautifully written book, full of shrewd observation and poetic expression." Irish Times
"The most gripping book I've read in ages...a fascinating, disturbing and often very funny memoir." Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments and A Star Called Henry
"A memoir of childhood that often reads like a craftily composed work of fiction." Daily Telegraph (London)
"Evocative, agitating and inspiriting, Speckled People sticks up for diversity and principled dissent...extending the scope of Irish memoir." The Independent (U.K.)
"Hamilton's most successful book to date, after building up a fine reputation as a novelist." Irish Voice
"A terrific achievement, thoughtful and compelling, smart and original, beautifully written." Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy
"An astonishing account, both delicate and strong, of great issues of twentieth-century Europe, modern Ireland, and family everywhere." Nuala O'Faolain, author of Are You Somebody? and My Dream of You
"A masterful piece of work timely, inventive, provocative and perfectly weighted. Don't be surprised if it becomes a classic." Colum McCann, author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness
"We wear Aran Sweaters and Lederhosen. We are forbidden from speaking English. We are trapped in a language war. We are the Speckled People." In one of the most original memoirs to emerge in years, Hugo Hamilton tells the haunting story of his German-Irish childhood in 1950s Dublin. His Gaelic-speaking, Irish nationalist father rules the home with tyranny, while his German-speaking mother rescues her children with cakes and stories of her own struggle against Nazi Germany. Out on the streets of Dublin is another country, where they are taunted as Nazis and subjected to a mock Nuremberg trial. Through the eyes of a child, this rare and shockingly honest book gradually makes sense of family, language, and identity, unlocking at last the secrets that his parents kept in the wardrobe.
About the Author
Elizabeth Chandler has written picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, and young adult romances (including the popular Kissed By an Angel trilogy) under a variety of names. As Mary Claire Helldorfer, she lives in Baltimore, MD, and loves stories, cats, baseball, and Bob—not necessarily in that order.
Reading Group Guide
1. Hugo Hamilton narrates this autobiographical memoir in the voice of a child. Why do you think Hamilton chose to filter his experiences this way? Does the child narrator say things that are too complicated for a child's voice?
2. Wearing German lederhosen with Irish sweaters, Hugo views himself as "Irish on top, and German below (p.2)," and thinks that "as a child you're like a piece of white paper with nothing written on it. My father writes down his name in Irish and my mother writes down her name in German and there's a blank space left over for all the people on the outside who speak English (p.3)." Do you think the English speakers have as much a claim to his identity as his mother and father? What do the English speakers outside have to say about his disjointed Irish/German identity? How does he negotiate between the three?
3. Compare the Hamilton's visit to An Cheathru? Rua to their visit to Germany. An Cheathru? Rua "was like being at home in the place where we all wanted to be for the rest of our lives (p.179)," and in Germany, "Nobody would ever call us Nazis. My father would have lots more friends and my mother would have all her sisters to talk to (p.217)." In one location, the whole family finds a united Irish identity, in the other, a German one. Are these identities assumed or real? Do you think it matters? How and why do they become foreign three times over once in Dublin?
4. Hugo's father "had the big idea of bringing people from other countries over to Ireland (p.39)", and after marrying the German Irmgard Kaiser, believed that his children would be the "new Irish". What does he mean by "new Irish"? Is it contradictory to expect multicultural children to be more authentically 'Irish'?
5. From populating Ireland with a new breed of children, to boycotting cinemas with no Irish 'exit' signs, to operating a candy factory from his home, to beekeeping Hugo's father has the energy and drive to pursue his many ideas. Why don't these ideas work? What motivates his quixotic schemes? Hugo is often called a 'dreamer', but do you think he's more practical than his father?
Ideology Fist people vs. Word People:
6. Compare the qualities the novel attributes to the 'fist people' and the 'word people'. Which term best describes Hugo's mother? His father?
7. Onkel Gerd instructs young Irmgard and her sisters to use 'the silent negative' when swearing allegiance to the Führer. Irmgard uses the silent negative when assaulted by Stiegler, and instructs her sons to do the same when they are taunted and called 'Nazis'. Given each circumstance, how effective is this as a form of resistance?
8. Irmgard tells Hugo that "you can only be brave if you know you will lose (p.268)." How does the silent negative embolden Tante Marianne? Was the one-armed, one-eyed man brave in his actions?
9. By the end of the novel, what does Hugo's father regret the most? His mother? Does his father accept losing 'the language war'? What meaning would you ascribe to each parent's use of the phrase "[I would] make different mistakes this time (p.282, p.289)."
10. Hugo describes several incidents in which family violence turns to comedy then sometimes to sadness. For instance, when Hugo's father threw appelkompost at Hugo at the dinner table (and his mother started laughing), when the children threw mashed potato at the ceiling (where the lumps stuck), when Hugo threw an egg at his mother (and it became a game they played) tension dissolves into laughter. How does comedy work in these situations?
11. When Hugo is being beaten by bullies in the changing shed, his tormentors accuse his of being a Nazi. What happens when he acts like he is one? How do they react when he yells "Sieg Heil, Donner Messer Splitten, Himmel Blitzen" (p.292) and other nonsense words? When he throws his own shoes into the sea? Does this scene make you laugh or make you uncomfortable? How does humor protect Hugo? "Laugh at yourself and the world laughs with you. Execute yourself and nobody can touch you" (p.294) do you agree?
12. Dislocation is a pervading theme in The Speckled People, as each character attempts to create, or find, a place to call home. Irmgard tells young Hugo, "Homesick people carry anger with them in their suitcases. And that's the most dangerous thing in the world, suitcases full of helpless, homesick anger (p.280)." What else do the suitcases symbolize?
13. Hugo's father's nationalistic zeal is an attempt to re-create Ireland as it existed before the British. An Ireland that predated his birth. Do you think his vision of an Irish homeland is authentic?
14. Why is Mr. Hamilton ashamed of his own father? Why is Irmgard ashamed of her past? Is Hugo ashamed of his parents? How do you understand and come to terms with your family?
15. Hugo's mother alleviates her homesickness for Germany by dressing her sons in lederhosen, maintaining German Christmas traditions, basically creating a German domestic life for her family within the confines of their home. Meanwhile, Germany itself divides politically and physically, so when she returns "she was lost. She couldn't recognize anything (p.296)." The home she longs for no longer exists. What, ultimately, can be considered 'home'? How does the novel resolve this question?
16. What happens at the end? Are they still homesick? Why do they laugh?