Last week it was my turn to host book club and I decided to invite author Suzanne Strempek Shea to be our guest via Skype since she lives in Massachusetts. But when the painters left the cable box face down on the deck and it filled up with water and blew out the internet, that was that and I had to go to Plan B. We used the good old fashioned telephone instead. Ms. Shea, who has a sense of humor, rolled with the changes and ended up talking to my small group for at least an hour about This Is Paradise, her new book about an Irish woman who has opened a clinic in Malawi. Ms. Shea has written five novels and four non-fiction books so she is certainly prolific; her sixth novel Make a Wish But Not for Money about a palm reader came out as well this month. (Her industriousness does make me a feel guilty. As I write this, the clock edging towards 9:00 a.m., I am still, ahem, sitting in my bathrobe, the light of the Adirondack ChrisMoose Balsam candle flickering alongside.)
My book club was familiar with Shea’s work because several years ago we read Shelf Life – Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore, a warm and witty memoir about working in a small bookstore the year after she recovered from cancer treatment.
It is hard to write about This is Paradise because what prompted Ms. Riordan, who is Irish and a former guidance counselor, to open the clinic in 2004 was the drowning death of her twenty-five-year-old son Billy in a Malawi lake in 1999. This wasn’t the first time she dealt with tragedy because she’d already lost two children in a car accident and to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. During a visit to Malawi to place a memorial stone in her son’s honor, she stayed in the village for three months and eventually, watching the villagers of Cape Maclear struggle with hunger, 90% unemployment and total lack of medical care, she began to dream (and fundraise) for a clinic. Nowadays, The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic has served a quarter of a million people, open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They have an ambulance; they are building a small operating theater. There is a small permanent staff and many doctors and nurses come from overseas for six month stints. The waiting list to work at the clinic is many computer screen shots.
Ms. Shea met Mags Riordan ten years ago at an enormous craft fair in Massachusetts where Ms. Riordan was selling wares from Malawi to raise money for her clinic. When Ms. Shea heard Ms. Riordan’s incredible story – turning her own personal tragedy into a quest to help others – Ms. Shea planned on writing an article until her husband, also a writer, convinced her this was book material. Three and a half years and many trips to Ireland and Malawi later, Ms. Shea finished This Is Paradise.
Ms. Shea is a former reporter for the Springfield, Massachusetts newspapers. She has had a successful freelance career and currently teaches at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program; she is also the writer in residence at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
Ms. Shea will be donating some of the proceeds of her book towards the clinic.
This is a powerful story indeed that breaks your heart yet leaves you with a feeling of hope.
A few of our book club members are networking in Richmond to try and arrange for a spring visit by Mses. Shea and Riordan.