Ann-Marie MacDonald

Fall on your Knees

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Fall on your Knees Summary

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Fall on your Knees (1996), the debut historical novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald, tells the story of a broken family and its numerous secrets over five generations. It was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and it has been well received by readers. MacDonald is a Canadian playwright who was born at a German air force base; she has won numerous awards throughout her career for her plays.

The story follows the Piper family and the protagonist, James Piper, a self-taught piano tuner. He is a reasonably prosperous man who knows what he wants and expects to get it. He is somewhat dangerous and possessive.

He meets 13-year-old Materia while fixing her family’s piano, and they fall in love. To her father’s dismay, the couple elopes and soon has their first child, Kathleen. Mercedes and Frances follow soon after. James, however, takes an unusual interest in Kathleen and worries that he is aroused by her. He volunteers to serve France during the Great War, hoping to stay away from his children until they are older. But he is not the same man when he comes back to his family. He is now more dangerous than before.

His children are now older. Kathleen is talented and attractive, Frances is a rebel, and Mercedes is steady and kind. James is distraught to realize he is still attracted to Kathleen; he sends her to New York to train as an opera singer. However, Kathleen gets into trouble in New York and James has no choice but to bring her home.

James discovers Kathleen is pregnant and the family tries to keep it secret. However, Kathleen dies during childbirth, leaving behind twins – a boy and a girl. Frances tries to baptize them, but James thinks she’s killing them and fights her. This results in the baby boy’s death and the baby girl contracting polio. She survives and believes her mother is Materia. Materia, however, dies shortly afterward, and the girls turn to relying on each other.

Still shaken by her father’s beating, Frances lashes out at school and finds herself expelled. She occupies herself with movies, dolls, and looking after Lily. She ends up becoming a prostitute obsessed with having an illicit affair and a baby, just like her sister. However, although she gets pregnant, she loses the baby and becomes very depressed. She believes her baby has died, but this is not confirmed.

Mercedes keeps her head down and stays focused on looking after the family. She finds little time for romance and regrets letting opportunities slip by her. When James has a stroke, she becomes the primary caregiver and is overwhelmed by the responsibility. She resents how much she gives up for her family and gets back nothing in return, but she doesn’t know how to change it.

Lily journeys to New York, reading Kathleen’s journals on the way. She discovers Kathleen had an affair with a woman, Rose, who dressed as a man when they went out anywhere. Kathleen had had a promising future in singing before everything changed – James had discovered her affair and raped her after beating Rose.

James impregnated Kathleen and is Lily’s father. He brought her home to Cape Breton for the birth and never told anyone the truth until his dying days. He confides the truth in Frances, who becomes something of his confidant in the later stages of his life. Frances tells Mercedes the truth about their father, but Mercedes refuses to believe she gave up so much of her life for someone who did this; she cannot accept she did not know her own father. Frances later dies, with the help of Mercedes.

Lily, meanwhile, journeys to New York to track down Rose. She wants to tell Rose what happened to Kathleen and that she is Kathleen’s daughter. Rose and she strike up a firm friendship and they live together for many years.

One day, a boy called Anthony shows up with a family tree drawn by Mercedes. Anthony is Frances’s long-lost child, who did not die, after all. At this point, all the secrets yet to be revealed are unraveled – including how much Frances confessed to Mercedes before her own death. Lily sits Anthony down to tell him all about his mother, their family, and who he is.

Fall on your Knees explores uncomfortable themes but ends with the next generation of the Piper family starting afresh and building a new history for themselves. This epic saga is celebrated for its brutally honest treatment of love, redemption, and sin, and the open ending leaves us all wondering what is next for the Piper family.