Recap: A story about following your heart wherever it may lead, A Mother’s Song by Michael Finaghty is an engrossing read. The book tells the story of Ruby Penfold, an orphan, brilliant pianist, and peace activist from Australia. It follows Ruby’s life — from her mischievous days at the Christian orphanage in the 1960’s to her teenage years with foster parents Captain and Connie O’Grady, and finally to her adult life in Melbourne and London.
At 18-years-old, Ruby meets her first love, Phillip, who is soon ripped from her by the Vietnam War. When this happens, Ruby’s passion against the war grows more intense. It’s a rocky period in her life, as she searches for and locates her mentally-ill biological mother. She later learns that her mother went crazy after she lost both her parents in the Blitzkrieg during WWII.
Despite Ruby’s efforts to remain part of Phillip’s and her mother’s life, she realizes she must move on. She journeys to London with her best friend, Chloe. There she meets her new love, Andrew. She continues her peace efforts by joining local peace groups. Her passion for music and the piano also remain. But after she enters the world of family life with Andrew, 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan follows. Soon, her activist lifestyle takes over.
Analysis: While reading the novel, I kept interpreting the title A Mother’s Song — which mother does it correspond to? Ruby’s biological, sick mother or her foster mother, Connie? And what song? The obvious answer is the opera song that Connie loves and shares with Ruby (“I too recall how long ago, my heart was joyful and tender; love spread his wings around me”). But Connie is an activist. And Ruby’s biological mother succumbed to illness after war destroyed her childhood. So in essence, Ruby’s song is one of peace — a song passed down to her by both of her mothers.
There is something beautiful about the way three different wars have affected three different generations. The Blitzkrieg’s effect on Ruby’s mother, the Vietnam War’s effect on Ruby, and the Afghanistan War’s effect on Ruby and her younger activist friends. The battle for peace becomes an heirloom that’s passed along from generation to generation.
Interwoven into the story about war and peace is also a story of love — love lost and refound. Ruby comes full circle in way that has both romantic and political impact.
MVP: Ruby Penfold. At a young age, she’s already dealt with a substantial amount of pain and loss. That continues to follow her into her adult life. But her ability to throw herself into her music and her activism helps her cope with everything. She’s a little lost and confused. But she is passionate. And that steers her toward becoming a romantic do-gooder.