Sadly, Martha Long never speaks the line she uses as the title for her wrenching memoir of childhood in Dublin. She knows that her mother wouldn’t care—she’s “too simple minded to look after herself,” let alone her children. So when Jackster, the man Martha regards as her step-father (though he has not married her mother), sets her up to run an errand to get a couple of shillings from a man who lives near by so he can buy cigarettes, she has no idea what she’s getting into. The man attempts to rape her, though she is only nine years old and because she’s been undernourished for so many years, she looks more like six. But, somehow, she fights him off, not that the man doesn’t tear her clothes and get sperm all over her.
This incident is far from being the most unsettling incident in Long’s unforgettable account of her childhood, roughly from age five to twelve. Her mother had her when she was sixteen, then a few years later, there was a second child—before Jackster entered their lives. Then, Sally has four more children by Jackster, who is so monstrous that if you rolled all of Charles Dickens’ evil characters into one, they wouldn’t equal Jackster by a long shot. Martha is exploited by both adults, becomes their servant, who does everything to keep things going. She cleans the premises where they live (a series of welfare allotments, often one room, but occasionally two), runs errands, takes care of the babies, which mostly means changing their diapers, and for these thankless chores is repeatedly beaten by Jackster. On one occasion when she’s taken to an orphanage for a few days, the nun discovers that her body is covered with bruises.
Jackster likes to drink, smoke, bully others around and get Sally pregnant. He treats Martha and her younger brother as if they are slaves and refers to them constantly as “another man’s leavings.” When welfare money arrives, he spends it on drink, and then as soon as he returns home trashes the place, which mostly means breaking all the furniture. If Martha and her mother are fortunate enough to receive clothing, given to them by the church, he immediately pawns the clothes for money for his habit. Consequently, Martha is typically dressed is rags, no underwear or socks, so poorly dressed that in the winter she’s constantly chilled and she often has infestations of lice that are so bad that her entire head is covered with scabs. Since Jackster needs Martha to be at his beck and call at all times, she rarely goes to school—only a few days a year.
In one of the few horrifying sequences that Martha describes about her schooling, an insensitive teacher can’t understand why Martha doesn’t have six pence, the fee that all of her students must have for knitting materials. So the teacher repeatedly beats her and, weeks later, when Martha actually has the six pence (money she’s earned from running errands) and gives the money to the teacher, she’s accused of stealing the money and given still another beating, this time for theft.
Martha prays that she and her siblings and their mother will be able to escape Jackster’s clutches, repeatedly fantasizing variations of this thought: “If only me ma would heave him! We’d be better off in the streets.” But Sally always melts in Jackster’s presence. Ironically, Martha is forced to become the bread-winner for the family after an incident when she shoplifts a couple of pounds of butter, sells them to a woman, and brings the money home to her mother. When Jackster learns about what has happened, he forces Martha to steal butter in increasing larger amounts, from the local supermarkets, sell it, and bring the money home. She does that for weeks, months, mostly undetected by the shop owners because she’s so small that once the butter is in her bag, she sneaks out of the stores with the crowds of adults surrounding her.
On one occasion Jackster gets so angry with her he convinces Sally that they’d all be better off if they could get rid of Martha. She’s given a ticket for the boat that will take her from Dublin to Liverpool, and told she’s to go on to London and live with some of Sally’s family. All Martha has is the rags on her body—no suitcase, no money, no food, no address in Hemel Hempstead where she’s expected to locate her mother’s relatives and no ticket for the train to take her there. The fact that Sally goes along with this plan tells us all we need to know about her regard for her children. And, yet, oddly this incident shows Martha another world because she is aided by good Samaritans, deodorized, given fresh clothing and plenty of food for a few days. But then the authorities figure out what has happened to her and send her back to Dublin. Back to Jackster.
There are a few moments in this relentlessly bleak story when Martha believes that her life will get better, one brief period when it looks as if Sally has had enough abuse from Jackster that she can live without him, but mostly Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes chronicles one indignity after another: physical and sexual abuse, starvation, freezing from the cold, and—equally bleak—constantly suffering indignities from other children. Martha is dirty, dressed in ill-fitting clothing, she smells, so other children want nothing to do with her. Her schooling is so minimal that she teaches herself how to write and do sums—skills she masters so she can always be ready to complete some impossible task for Jackster.
More than anything else and in spite of the most overwhelming odds, Martha fights back—not with words or actions but with an ever active mind. After the incident with the attempted rape that will get her a couple of shillings for Jackster’s cigarettes, she writes, “My childish days are gone forever.” Yet there is no self-pity in this haunting account of childhood wretchedness few children would be able to survive. And just about the time we, the readers, believe that Martha is finally going to escape the exploitation she has experienced all her life, something happens once again. But that story is part of the second volume of Martha Long’s five-volume autobiography of her childhood and the early years of her adulthood. The books have been hugely successful in Europe, but all we have to read so far in the United States is Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes.
This is a searing account of childhood survival. No more haunting memoir has been published this year.
Martha Long: Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes
Seven Stories, 480 pp., $26.95.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.