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The Speckled People [Paperback]

Hugo Hamilton
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 6 2003
'This is the most gripping book I've read in ages ...It is beautifully written, fascinating, disturbing and often very funny.' Roddy Doyle The childhood world of Hugo Hamilton, born and brought up in Dublin, is a confused place. His father, a sometimes brutal Irish nationalist, demands his children speak Gaelic, while his mother, a softly spoken German emigrant who has been marked by the Nazi past, speaks to them in German. He himself wants to speak English. English is, after all, what the other children in Dublin speak. English is what they use when they hunt him down in the streets and dub him Eichmann, as they bring him to trial and sentence him to death at a mock seaside court. Out of this fear and guilt and often comical cultural entanglements, he tries to understand the differences between Irish history and German history and turn the twisted logic of what he is told into truth. It is a journey that ends in liberation, but not before he uncovers the long-buried secrets that lie at the bottom of his parents wardrobe. 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 whole family's homesickness for a country they can call their own.

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The son of a German mother and an Irish father, Hugo Hamilton grew up in Dublin in the 1950s wearing "lederhosen and Aran sweaters, smelling of rough wool and new leather, Irish on top and German below." His family spoke both German and Irish, but English was strictly forbidden--even uttering a few words of the cursed language was enough to earn an often brutal punishment from their father, a staunch Irish nationalist. His father maintained that "your home is your language" and insisted that they be a model Irish family and an example for others to follow. Hamilton and his siblings were not even permitted to play with children who did not speak Irish exclusively--a particular problem in a country where English is the primary language. Ironically, he was taunted mercilessly for his German heritage and children jeered him with cries of "Eichmann" and "Heil Hitler." He was even put on "trial" once by a gang of kids who sentenced him death by snowball firing squad. This confusing quest to discover his identity and to gain an understanding of his family history is at the heart of The Speckled People, a profoundly touching and beautifully written memoir.

His parents' secrecy concerning their own pasts only exacerbated his frustration, forcing Hamilton to cling to fragments of information gleaned secretly from hidden photographs and buried family relics. Written from the perspective of a child, Hamilton captures his feelings of confusion, guilt, and fear convincingly and with much humor and insight. Full of poetic passages, sharp observations, and the kind of subtle epiphanies that are best expressed by a child, the book is a joy to read. "When you're small you know nothing and when you grow up there are things you don't want to know," he writes. This memoir is Hamilton's attempt to reconcile the two. --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

"I know what it's like to lose, because I'm Irish and I'm German," explains Hamilton in this beautiful memoir of a mixed childhood in the years after WWII. Hamilton's father says they are speckled, breac in Gaelic: spotted like a trout. With an Irish father and a German mother, Hamilton comes to Ireland as a boy in the 1950s and finds a homeland that will never fully accept him. Other children call him "Kraut" and "Nazi" and taunt him with "Sieg Heil!" salutes. Yet Hamilton is in many ways more Irish than they. His father never allows him to speak English and insists the family use the Gaelic form of their last name (O hUrmoltaigh), which many of their neighbors can't even pronounce. Despite these efforts, Hamilton knows, "we'll never be Irish enough." There is much in this Irish memoir that's familiar to the genre: the dark, overwhelming father; the tragic mother; the odd mix of patriotism and self-loathing ("the hunger strike and Irish coffee" are the country's greatest inventions, Hamilton's father says). But the book is never cliched, thanks largely to Hamilton's frankly poetic language and masterful portrait of childhood. This is really a book about how children see the world: the silent otherworld at the bottom of a swimming pool, the terror of a swarm of bees, the strangeness of a city transformed by snow. By turns lyrical and elegiac, this memoir is an absorbing record of a unique childhood and a vanishing heritage.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
In `The Speckled People', Hugo Hamilton writes, from a child's perspective, of his Irish childhood. He writes of growing up in a home where the languages spoken were the Irish of his nationalist father and the German of his mother. English was forbidden by his father, who was so obsessed with trying to hold onto his linguistic and cultural heritage that he would not do business with anyone who could not pronounce his Irish name (Ó hUrmoltaigh) correctly.

`Everybody else was in the wrong country and couldn't rescue us.'

Hamilton and his siblings grew up in Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s. His mother, Irmgard Kaiser, left Germany after World War II to go on a pilgrimage to Ireland. She stayed in Ireland, and married Jack Hamilton (who had renamed himself Sean Ó hUrmoltaigh). Jack Hamilton dedicated his life to the anti-British, nationalist cause and particularly to the rehabilitation of the Irish language. His father, who had served and died in the British Navy, was largely (but not entirely) removed from the family record.
The children who mostly dominate the story are Franz, Johannes and Maria, although other siblings are mentioned. It is Johannes who tells this story, and while he signals a future name change, the actual change is not discussed.

`When I grow up I'll run away from my story, too. I have things I want to forget, so I'll change my name and never come back. `

Writing an account from a child's perspective must be challenging for any adult: reading an account written from a child's perspective has advantages and disadvantages. A child can recount what is seen, observed and experienced without necessarily understanding and interpreting the context.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We Knew About Losing Aug. 14 2003
The cover of this book has one of the most charming photographs of a young child reading. The picture has much greater relevance, as it is not simply a wonderful photograph chosen for the cover of a book, rather a picture of a young Hugo Hamilton. The author characterizes his early years in post war Europe as the child of an Irish mother and a German father by stating, "We knew about losing, we were Irish and German".
This autobiography is not like many I have read by before, especially those set in Ireland. This is not a fairy tale that is ruled by wicked characters from Dickens or a childhood that is unfamiliar with happiness. The most bizarre character that struck me was his father, an ultra nationalist obsessed with Gaelic. For this man absolutely everything secured its destruction by whether or not Gaelic was the written or spoken word. This was a man who would imperil his family financially not because there was a lack of work rather those he worked for did not address his mail in Gaelic. His children were made near recluses, as he would not allow them to interact with any children that did not come from a home that shared his strict and bizarre views of language. When his strange fixation on language was added to the prejudice the children experienced as a result of lingering German prejudice, there was plenty for this man to write about. As happens in many instances his Mother was a critical influence and she is interesting to read of as well.
This is a beautifully written work but is not one that will constantly raise your spirits. I found it to be melancholy, but a very worthwhile use of your reading time.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Almost an Angela's Ashes Dec 7 2003
By A Customer
The cover picture and the packaging are obviously attempting to ride on the coat tails of the phenomonal success of "Angela's Ashes." Which is okay in this case, because there are many similarities, and also because this book is almost as good. Almost. It's very close. Which is to say: it's still better than just about any other memoir you could get your hands on. This is a most charming, most intuitive, most page-turning read. I loved it. You probably will too.
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