The Salt And The Flame

Donald S. Murray

(Saraband, £9.99)

In 1923, on the Isle of Lewis, 16-year-old Mairead steps on to the SS Metagama. Ahead of her lies a new life in Canada, and still ringing in her ears is a sermon from her minister urging his congregation to heed the fate of Lot’s wife and never look back. Mairead, who until this day hasn’t been further afield than Stornoway, has taken that sermon to heart.

She will commit herself fully to her future, and refuses even to look over her shoulder at the bonfires her neighbours have lit to see the emigrants on their way.

Also aboard is fellow islander Finlay, the pair soon becoming aware of their mutual attraction. Upon disembarking, Mairead goes to Montreal to become nanny to a doctor’s three children while Finlay boards a train that will take him to work on a farm in Manitoba.

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It will be some time before they meet again, but they will ultimately move south, settle in Detroit and start a family. They don’t like to talk about the suicide of George, the passenger who threw himself into the sea in a fit of regret at leaving his home forever.

Donald S. Murray, who grew up on Lewis, has written two fine novels already about island life, and concludes his trilogy with a well-researched and heartfelt exploration of the Scottish immigrant experience.

It follows Mairead’s fortunes over the next 50 years – through the Wall Street Crash, the Depression, the Second World War and the Civil Rights movement – as she adapts to her new home while watching the handsome, optimistic young man she married turn into a hot-tempered alcoholic racist.

Throughout her life, Mairead struggles to reconcile herself with her decision never to look back. Detroit is unfamiliar, sometimes frightening, a bustling Babel of voices that couldn’t be more different from the peaceful crofts of Lewis. But neither does she want to be like her friend Ina, continually sharing news about the folks back home and the passengers of the Metagama, her heart still in the Hebrides.

It’s ironic, then, that after decades of living in the US Finlay will accuse Mairead of not letting go of the old country when it’s he who has had the most trouble adjusting to the racial and cultural diversity around them.

While the more empathetic Mairead sees only outsiders like themselves struggling to make a life in hostile, impoverished circumstances, Finlay longs to be living once more in a monoculture, a whites-only club like Lewis.

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Frequently, Murray looks back across the Atlantic to check on Mairead’s brother, Murdo, left looking after their ageing parents in a community where there is little change and little hope of improvement; a community where many are still emotionally scarred by World War One, the catastrophic sinking of the SS Iolaire that killed more than 200 men and the collapse of the fishing industry.

Mairead and her family may be fictional, but the Ness-born Murray’s research, drawn from relatives, acquaintances, museums and historical societies, draws one into her all-too-believable life.

Her lifelong uncertainty over whether she made the right decision makes The Salt and the Flame an especially poignant story, told with an abundance of humanity and compassion.

This well-crafted novel will strike a chord with anyone who has uprooted themselves to go to live and work in another culture, or whose parents have made that profound decision, showing keen insights into the ways people are shaped by the competing demands of the future they have chosen and the past that won’t let them go.