In the process of doing research for her latest book, Golden Boxty in the Frypan, Dana Point author Pat Spencer uncovered secrets and scandals deep in her family’s history.
The historical fiction was largely inspired by Spencer’s mother, who grew up as an Irish immigrant in Philadelphia during The Great Depression.
Spencer began the research process for her book by speaking with her cousins and listening to their stories of their parents.
One of the cousins had done some digging into genealogy, Spencer noted, and had lots of birth, death, marriage certificates and medical records.
“We just started digging deeper and contacting entities and asking, ‘Do you have this?’ ” Spencer recalled. “I made a connection at the Pueblo Historical Museum. There was a woman there who did a lot of digging, and some of it was fun stuff.”
In addition to learning about her family’s story, Spencer began reading more about The Great Depression and why immigrants who had survived the great potato famine immigrated to the U.S chasing the American dream.
Spencer noted that many immigrants died on the ships coming to America, and many learned that the American dream was “a little elusive” once they reached the shore.
“I wanted to know more about the general life of Irish immigrants and the conditions they found, as well as what my family experienced, and that’s what this book is,” Spencer said. “It’s historical fiction, because a great deal of it is based on fact, what I know about my family home, but I also pulled in just general, typical things that the Irish of the time went through.”
Learning about the discrimination that Irish immigrants faced once they reached America, Spencer noted that she felt a responsibility to be accurate and respectful of the experiences that immigrants faced.
“I thought I would just write a story of a girl coming of age, but I didn’t realize the responsibility that would come with it,” Spencer said. “When I started, it started to feel so personal.”
Writing Golden Boxty in the Frypan was unexpectedly cathartic, Spencer said.
“My mother was pretty harsh; she wasn’t over-the-top abusive, but she was, by today’s standards, she was really harsh,” Spencer said. “I had a lot of resentment. … In writing this, I submerged myself in what she went through, how she was abandoned, how she had to dig herself up by the bootstraps.”
“I started understanding the way she was and why she was and how her emotions were so tight; she didn’t want to be hurt again,” Spencer continued. “I came to understand it, which was a really good thing for me.”
While conducting research for the book, Spencer came to learn that after her grandmother died, her grandfather remarried and left his four kids, including Spencer’s mother, at a nearby Catholic orphanage.
“Before I started the investigation, I never even knew there was a stepmother,” Spencer said.
All Spencer and the cousins knew was that after their grandmother died—despite their grandfather still being alive—their parents ended up in an orphanage.
“That’s harsh; I mean, that’s about as harsh as it gets to take four young children and say, we don’t want you anymore and take them to the local . . . I mean, they didn’t even take them far away; they took them to the neighborhood Catholic orphanage,” Spencer said.
Though the book takes place during The Great Depression, Spencer noted that Golden Boxty in the Frypan is not depressing.
“This is a book that has some humor, some fun, some adventure; there’s a huge adventure at the end,” Spencer said. “These kids go through a lot, face a lot, but it’s a story of love and family bonds and a young girl who starts at 6 and who evolves into a responsible young woman who takes responsibility for her three youngest brothers.”
“She conquers all that’s against her,” Spencer continued. “There are some difficult parts, scenes to read, but at the end, you’ll be happy.”
The title Golden Boxty in the Frypan refers to a scene in the book where the main character Katie cooks a traditional Irish potato pancake dish, Golden Boxty, with her downstairs neighbor.
“Katie, at the beginning of the book, is 6 years and and she lives in a third-story tenement in Philadelphia,” Spencer said. “The neighborhood is dangerous and she is the youngest at the time … her two brothers and sister all go to school but she can’t go to school yet.”
“So she’s home alone and her mother won’t let her go out to play because it’s too dangerous,” Spencer continued. “So she’s lonely but she makes friends with Mrs. O’Shea who lives downstairs and Mrs. O’Shea and Katie cook together.”
At a point when Katie is feeling down from the challenges she’s facing, Mrs. O’Shea tells the young girl, “everything is going to look better when we’ve got these Boxty deep frying in the pan. And if you throw in an extra pad of butter, then that ensures that everything is going to be better.”
The book’s cover depicts Katie cooking the classic Irish dish in a romantic, patina art style.
In addition to the healing process Spencer experienced while writing the book, she noted that she enjoyed learning about the details and richness of her family history.
“Although not all that richness was good,” Spencer said. “There’s fun things, there’s humor, there’s teenage love, there’s a whole gamut, a whole life in there. I feel good about what writing the book did for me.”
Spencer added that she hopes readers take away a message of resilience from Golden Boxty in the Frypan.
“The strength that can come out of hard times, poor treatment, poverty, neglect, a little abuse, abandonment; my relatives went through a lot, but they weren’t undone. They went on,” Spencer said. “I’d like that to be the takeaway, that there’s hope. People have the ability to pull up this strength from deep inside and trudge on, get through it and make something of themselves.”