At the core of American Gods is this fundamental truth, first spoken by Mr. Wednesday: no one is American, not originally. Though not everyone came here willingly and some have been here much, much longer than others, we all came from somewhere else first. Essie MacGowan, the immigrant heroine of the season’s penultimate episode, is certainly no exception to this notion. But of course, no adaptation is exactly like its source material, and the subtle changes made to her journey offer an interesting look into a type of immigrant tale that’s all too often erased by the people who share her ancestry.
In truth, the Essie of Neil Gaiman’s original text is not a McGowan at all. She’s actually Tregowan, with chestnut hair and wide brown eyes; she hails not from Ireland but the southwesternmost tip of England in Cornwall, and leaves gifts out for the piskies. When she finally sheds this mortal coil, it’s with the help of a fellow Cornishman, dressed all in green and with carroty red hair—more likely a “knocker” than a leprechaun, although the book doesn’t say for sure. However, Cornish and Irish mythology have the same Celtic roots, and so the switch from Tregowan into MacGowan is a fairly easy palette swap; just replace piskies with fairies and an unnamed Cousin Jack with Mad Sweeney himself.
On a practical level, it’s obvious these changes were made to give Mad Sweeney a more concrete presence in a Coming to America tale. Mr. Nancy was inserted into a slave ship narrative way back in the show’s second episode for the same reason; these passages existed in the book, but mostly as world-building non sequiturs, and weaving recognizable Gods into them gives the series a stronger sense of cohesion. Add in the fact that Emily Browning also plays Essie, and there’s a neat parallel in how her story and Laura’s stories intersect with Sweeney’s. Both are on a journey to escape death, and like it or not he’s stuck along for the ride.
Essie’s transition from Cornish to Irish does also carry with it the added bonus of seeming more familiar to a larger number of Americans. According to Irish Central, “Irish” is the second-most common ancestry in the United States next to German; the number of Americans who claim Irish heritage is now about seven times that of the current population of Ireland. If you’re reading this right now, there’s roughly about a one in 10 chance that one of your great-great-grandmothers spoke with the same accent Essie does.
But Essie isn’t quite the quintessential 19th century famine refugee that we usually expect Irish immigrants to be, nor is she the type of old world colonist that American mythology tends to romanticize. Still, her story is fairly common. During the Colonial era, about 250,000 people came to the Americas from Ulster, a Protestant province in Northern Ireland. These immigrants were later known as Scots-Irish, to differentiate themselves from the swaths of Irish Catholics who arrived in the 19th century, although their descendants now see themselves as “American” before anything else. Many were poor, working class farmers who often started out as indentured servants like Essie MacGowan did; they first began settling in Pennsylvania but eventually spread out across the Appalachian mountains to Virginia and the Carolinas.
To put it in layman’s terms, these are the immigrants who gave birth to the modern stereotype of the hillbilly. Based on how this ethnic group evolved over time, it’s entirely likely that Essie’s direct descendants would now live somewhere like the Virginia mining town ruled by Vulcan in last week’s episode.
Most natural born Americans know the myth of the melting pot, which suggests that immigrants can only become American themselves by shedding away the parts of themselves that don’t align with the dominant culture. But in America, even that dominant culture comes from somewhere else—heck, the country music celebrated by most modern residents of Appalachia would not exist without the Scottish and Irish ballads that Essie MacGowan would have brought with her.
Essie MacGowan may have come to this country a long, long time ago, but that doesn’t make her more American than anyone else, and suggesting that there’s one right way to live in this country ignores the fundamental purpose of America in the first place. In highlighting her story, American Gods reminds us of that—even if they had to change her accent and hair color to do it.