The Common Reader for 2017-2018 will be On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, published in 2011. The novel’s complexity will challenge NEHS members; it is presented through a creative narrative via the voice of Lilly Bere, who “recounts the events of her life as though mesmerized by the vivid incompleteness of a remembered dream” (The Guardian, 2011). Spanning multiple decades from World War I through the Gulf War, the text leads readers to understand not only Lilly and her family, but history, warfare, family, life, and death. The evocative opening lines provide a glimpse of the power of Barry’s poetic language: “Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound” (Barry 3).
The novel will engage NEHS seniors graduating in spring 2018 as the text for the competitive scholarship process. Students interested in vying for the scholarships must read the text and respond to a prompt provided by NEHS; the prompts will be available November 2017. Scholarship essays will be due by noon, CST, on Tuesday, January 16, 2018.
For the 2017-2018 NEHS Merit Scholarship Competition based on On Cannaan’s Side by Sebastian Berry
Explain how Lily’s journey from Ireland to America, Canaan’s side, was and was not the “Promised Land” she expected it to be. Consider the circumstances of Lily’s exit from Ireland, her marriage and relationships, her day-to-day life, and her son and grandson.
At one point, Lily Bere remarks, “We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.” How does Lily’s memory of her life experiences give the title of the novel its irony and the text its richness?
Discuss the ways in which Irish culture, religion, history, and folklore help form Lily Bere’s story. How do these elements help make her story universal? How and in what ways does a cultural lens help readers gain understanding of the text?
Lily Bere counts the days “without Bill,” but her account is also about how her life has been controlled by the fate of circumstances. Explore how Lily’s recollections and interpretations of the events of her life have led her to a final decision to end it.
Craft a personal thesis appropriate for this novel and write an essay responding to that self-designed idea. The prompt must be of sufficient significance to generate quality writing that presents important analysis, one that engages the reader in reflecting on the serious topics springing from On Canaan’s Side.