Laying it on the line 1 – Aleutian Sparrow


One thousand miles away our churches stand empty.

But we are alive and we give thanks.

Five villages’ worth of Aleuts gather in the field under a steady rain.

The hem of God brushes our upturned faces.

The first entry in my series of favourite lines is from the verse novel Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse.

The novel deals with the forced relocation during the Second World War of the Aleut people, the native residents of Alaska’s Aleutian islands. After a Japanese campaign to control this part of the North Pacific, the American government made the decision to evacuate many Aleut residents and forcibly relocated them to camps on the mainland. It would be years before they were permitted to return home and by that time, as Hesse points out in her Author’s Note, ‘as many as one in four evacuated Aleuts had died from tuberculosis, whooping cough, measles, mumps, pneumonia, or pain’. When they did return home, it was often to scenes of destruction and ruin. The traditional way of life could not be sustained and Aleut culture, in common with that of other groups who endured wartime internment, suffered irreparable damage.

‘The hem of God brushes our upturned faces’.

This line has stayed with me since I first read the novel in 2004. The image it constructs is beautiful in its simplicity and, as rain and Irish people are intimately acquainted, it offers us a dignified alternative to more mundane reactions to our meteorological constant. The domesticity associated with words such as ‘hem’ and ‘brush’ serve to remind the reader that the characters have lost their homes and, yet, as they gather as a community in a field in the rain, it seems possible at this point that their connection with the natural world may offer a form of portable communal identity. There is also a comforting sense of the maternal, both human and divine. The picture of a mother wiping away a child’s tears with her clothing is a familiar one, as is the image of a child with face upturned for solace.

This line speaks to me on visual and metaphorical levels, but it also leaves its mark in terms of rhythm. The simple tempo of the phrase ‘the hem of God’ contrasts with the more complex rhythm of ‘brushes our upturned faces’.  To me, and this is one of the not-textual but wholly personal reasons why I quote this line often, is that the opposition between the chaos and the confusion of this life and the simplicity of divine grace is perfectly represented in that contrast.

This is one of my favourite lines from literature, but Aleutian Sparrow is full of exquisitely crafted passages and equally beautiful images. I hope everyone who reads it comes away with a newly discovered favourite line.

On a related note, the fantastic Irish band Bell X1 make use of a similar image. Their song, The Trailing Skirts of God, perfectly captures the experience of growing up in, and drifting away from, a certain era of Irish Catholicism. Well worth a listen, those boys are poets!

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