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“Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin is a wonderful glimpse into small town life in Ireland in the 1970s. Nora is a young widow with four children. Her two older girls, Fiona and Aine, are smart, capable and, for the most part, independent. They cause Nora little worry.
Donal and Conor, her sons, still need her. When her husband Maurice was dying, Nora left their care to her aunt so she could spend every day in the hospital with Maurice. Nora worries that they may have suffered from the loss of their father and her absence during his last illness. Donal, the older son, has begun to stutter.
In their small town in County Wexford, everyone knows everyone’s business – and that is both a curse and a blessing. Nora wishes she could just go somewhere without everyone staring at her with such pitying looks. On the other hand, everyone loved Maurice, and many go out of their way to give Nora support and aid.
Northern Ireland in the 1970s still suffers from the clash between Protestants and Catholics. In the south of Ireland, Nora does not feel caught up in the issues, but her daughter Aine is just like her father and wants rights for her fellow Catholics in Northern Ireland.
When Maurice dies, Nora loses the person who had rescued her “from the stifling world to which she had been born.” She has lost her economic stability and is forced to return to a job she never wanted. Nora drifts through each day, not knowing what to do for any of her children.
Though this is often the way life goes in the first year of any widowhood, the story takes place in Ireland, where families are close and small towns take care of their own.
This consoling dynamic is at the heart of this story.