Colum McCann (1965)
There are passages in Colum McCann’s novel TransAtlantic in which the suffering and loss the characters encounter tear at one’s heart. And yet in other scenes these characters experience wonder and accomplishment that fill one’s heart with hope. Here, condensed into a novel, are the vagaries of life.
Spanning the past one hundred and sixty some years, McCann builds his story around brief but critical times in the lives of several historical figures. These ‘real’ characters, otherwise unrelated, become linked together in his novel through the transformative effect they have on the lives of four fictional characters, one or another of whom they happen to come into brief contact with: four generations of women --- mothers and daughters, one to the next. Through his characters, historical and fictional, McCann explores the vicissitudes of everyday life, whether experienced by the famous or the unknown: from the dreams and passions that motivate us to push beyond what we already know, to the natural and man-made disasters that can threaten to destroy our hope and our will.
The novel focuses on each of the main characters in turn (if not precisely in chronological order), and is built around crossings most of the characters make of the Atlantic Ocean, between North America and Ireland.
The first half of the book tells the stories of the historical figures in the novel. In the mid-1840’s Frederick Douglass, then an escaped slave living in Boston, spends time in Ireland speaking on the need to abolish slavery and raising funds for anti-slavery groups in the United States, as well as receiving donations to buy his own freedom. Some seventy-five years later, in 1919, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown fly a modified World War I bomber --- a cloth-framed biplane --- non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland, the first such plane flight across the Atlantic. Finally, another eighty years further on, in the late 1990’s, former Senator George Mitchell leads negotiations to end the “Troubles,” the long period of self-inflicted death and destruction in Northern Ireland.
The stories of these famous men become bound together, in McCann’s telling of their histories, by a woman who encounters Douglass during his time in Ireland, and then by the woman’s daughter, grand-daughter and great-granddaughter, who eventually cross paths with Alcock and Brown, and later Mitchell. Though the meetings are tangential to the lives of the historical figures --- unimportant to them really --- for the women these encounters provide a glimpse into possibilities for futures different than they had earlier imagined for themselves.
The second half of the book details the lives of each of these four generations of women. The men of the first half drift for the most part into the background, though never completely disappearing. Instead it is now several of the women who are inspired to make trans-Atlantic crossings and search out their destinies, as had before them the famous men they have met. Each in their own way, these women experience both the marvels and the pains of life, as they travel far from their origins.
In a note at the end of the novel, McCann thanks among others Wendell Berry, who, like McCann, has written movingly of the land and people’s place on it, and also forcefully on injustice and against violence. These themes appear through TransAtlantic: Douglass goes to Ireland arguing for justice for slaves; a century and a half later George Mitchell makes that same trip to try and bring peace to Northern Ireland; one of the primary motivations of Alcock and Brown to make their historic flight was to turn a machine of war, the WWI bomber, into one of peace. The women of the story, in their more private histories, also engage with the injustice and violence of the world, whether it is the struggle to work alongside men, the misery of the U.S. Civil War or the seemingly endless and random death of the Irish “Troubles.”
McCann’s powerful writing envelopes a reader in his characters; he does not so much tell us what they are thinking as form images of their emotional reaction to the world, as they reflect on their past successes and failures, try to make sense of their present struggles, and imagine their potential futures. The images he paints can sometimes amaze with their beauty and precision, but also in other passages break one’s heart when faced with the crushing depth of a character’s pain.
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