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By: | Apr 27, 2002 10:55 AM

While there are many who can boast being third, fourth or even fifth generation Americans, many more of us cannot. Yet, though our pride lies in the fact that we are Americans, we are the ones who can more readily understand the plight of the immigrant. Why? Read on, please.

Taylor Caldwell's masterpiece, Captain and The Kings takes us back to those days of our grandparents and their parents who settled in this country looking for that opportunity to have a better life. But, it was also a time of struggling, which proved to some to be for no other reason than to just survive. Whether you're like me, who grew up hearing the tales of a young Irish lad coming to America, or you just enjoy reading a great book, this one must be placed on your ''to read'' list.

Joseph Armagh sailed with his mother and younger brother, Sean, from Ireland to America, where his father set out a few months earlier to begin a new life for his beautiful, pregnant wife and young sons. Upon arriving at the New York port, Joseph's mother dies while giving birth to Mary Regina, a healthy baby girl. Soon after, Joseph learns that he and his siblings are not allowed off the ship because there is no one to meet them at the dock. Joseph can't understand why his father didn't come for him but is convinced there is some misunderstanding. Before he can begin to straighten things out, the ship departs from New York and heads to Boston where Joseph learns that his father died only a few weeks before the ship docked in New York. Orphaned, he's determined to keep the promise made to his dying mother - to always take care of his little brother and baby sister. Joseph's only problem now is to figure out how a young boy of 13 can house, feed and clothe himself, his 6-year old brother and infant sister. Yet, he made a promise and to Joseph Armagh, although only a young teen, a promise was sacred and not meant to be broken - at any cost. Upon leaving the ship, Joseph realizes the best place for his brother and sister is in the local orphanage. This gives him the chance to find employment and hopefully save some money. The nuns who run the orphanage tell Joseph that they can only keep the little ones so long until they are placed on the list for adoption. Joseph's terror at losing his siblings turns his mind into a numb thought-provoking machine as he strikes a bargain with the nuns. If he pays a monthly stipend, they must promise never to place the names of his brother and sister on that list. The deal is made, but that now, places an extra burden on the young teenager. How can he find work that will support himself and pay room and board for his siblings.

Yet, the promise made to his mother is always his first priority. Through the years of his life, Joseph's ambition for wealth leads him to years of under-handed dealings, things which although not quite illegal, are unethical, yet these same conditions pay well and Joseph's quest for money pushes his conscience and virtue aside. His one remaining virtue is his unshakable determination to always keep his promises. One, made to his mother many years ago, he has yet to fulfill.

Will Joseph be able to retrieve his brother and sister from the orphanage where they've lived for so many years? His brother is almost 18 and is about to be turned loose on the world. Joseph wants to strike another bargain with the nuns: keep Sean there and put him to work while he continues paying room and board. Can such a deal be made? How is the life spent at the orphanage affecting Sean and Mary Regina.

This book follows Joseph's life from the day he made that promise to his last breath so many years later. It describes the difficulties he faced when seeking employment because at that time, although hiring children was a common practice, many were prejudiced against immigrants, and that included the Irish. Captains and The Kings emphasizes the power and commitment of any promise made by Joseph in his quest for the riches he felt needed to give his brother and sister the life he deemed they should have. This book also captures Joseph's life as he embarks on many journeys from that first day his feet touched American soil. It follows him through his years as a teen, where he finds people who trust the ''immigrant'' enough to hire him. It depicts his early twenties where he settles into a job that while offers good money, also offers many life-threatening situations. Captains and The Kings describes Jospeh's life as he falls in love only to find the woman who's captured his heart belongs to another. This wonderful story not only tells of the life of Joseph Armagh, it describes the lives of many immigrants who landed in America so many years ago. It demonstrates the trials and hardships they met during their lives and how many never survived. While some died from illness, others died from lack of food and water and, yet, others died from the dangerous work they were given in order to try and live.

Had my grandfather come to America during that time, he would have faced the same situation. Pop arrived here in 1922 when the life for an immigrant was a bit easier, yet I can remember his many stories about coming to strange land to find a better way to live. For Joseph Armagh, life was harder and filled with more sadness than one young man should face. Okay, enough! I don't want to give the entire story away. What I do want to say is that book is only ONE of the greatest books written by Taylor Caldwell. It is the masterpiece that many have said was the fictitious story loosely based on the life of Joseph Kennedy. Whether that's true or not, only Ms. Caldwell ever knew, but the book is definitely worth reading.

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