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TransAtlantic is Colum McCann's sixth novel, and in it we find, as we did in Dancer and Let the Great World Spin, a mixture of fictional characters and what could be called real ones if they hadn't migrated from the sublunary world to the empyrean of art. First up are John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who in June 1919 became the first human beings to fly across the Atlantic Ocean; then Frederick Douglass on his visit to Ireland of 1845–46, a period coincident with the potato blight's first widespread assault on the countryside; and, finally, George Mitchell, also in Ireland, coming up finally to the Good Friday Accords of 1998. Bridging the decades and diverseness of these actors are four generations of fictional women: Lucy Duggan who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in 1846; her daughter, Emily; Emily's daughter, Lottie; and finally Hannah, daughter of Lottie and the end of the line.
McCann shuffles time with his customary legerdemain, beginning with a brief flash-forward to 2012, which, we eventually discover, serves as the book's conclusion. The novel doubles back to 1919 in Newfoundland with Alcock and Brown readying their aircraft for its transatlantic flight, while Emily, a reporter, and seventeen-year- old Lottie, a photographer, pop in and out of sight on the sidelines. The plane is a Vickers Vimy, "all wood and linen and wire," a veteran — as are the two men — of the recent, devastating war. This portion of the book is immensely stirring, filled with the romance of mechanics and the theatrics of nature. The airplane's description alone is a litany of specifications and hymn to harnessed power, concluding finally with "two water-cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines of 360 horsepower and a turnover rate of 1,080 revs per minute, with twelve cylinders in two banks of six, each engine driving a four-bladed wooden propeller."
I know I am not alone in feeling a rush of joy at such details, so here I will mention that when I think of McCann's novels, what I remember most vividly are the determined spirit of his characters in mastering physical forces and their author's gift for finding drama in the laws of nature. I am thinking of the sandhogs in This Side of Brightness digging the tunnel under the East River in New York, earth and water held back until, in the book's most arresting scene, unloosed pneumatic and hydraulic forces show their awful might. I think of Rudolf Nureyev in Dancer, not so much of his soaring leaps but of his learning to get up on stilts. I think of the (unnamed) Philippe Petit character in Let the Great World Spin and his meticulous attention to the forces inherent in his braided cable stretched between the towers of World Trade Center, of the threat to his life of "internal torque," of snags, of the extrusion of oil.
In the present novel, the transatlantic flight is excruciatingly thrilling, beginning with a white-knuckle take-off, the plane so heavily loaded with fuel that it is barely able to rise clear of a stand of trees. Once aloft, the men must contend with debilitating noise and cold, with wind, snow, and, most harrowing of all, with the senses-extinguishing experience of flying through cloud: an aerial limbo where up and down have been lost. The arrival in Ireland is a wondrous scene: The aviators observe with relief the smooth green of an apparently ideal landing site — only to discover that it is bogland and little use in relieving kinetic energy. The doughty aircraft skims the surface, digs in its wheels, flips forward, and ends up nose down in two feet of primordial Ireland. In the distance, the people of the town of Clifden stream toward the plane, soldiers first. ("Don't shoot, he thinks. After all this, don't shoot us.") Behind them come "horses and carts. A single motor car. A line of people coming from the town, snaking out along the road, small gray figures. And look at that, look at that. A priest in white vestments. Coming closer now. Men, women, children. Running. In their Sunday best."
Alcock and Brown alight from the air; Frederick Douglass from the sea, where he had been forced to travel in steerage thanks to the intolerance of some American "fellow" travelers. In Ireland, out of range of fugitive-slave laws, he can breathe freely for the first time in his life, and he is treated as the equal of the grand people he meets. Yet, he finds himself still trammeled, though in an unforeseen manner. Not far from the comfortable Quaker household in which he is staying in Dublin (waited upon by Lily Duggan), he finds unexampled squalor and misery in the city's further streets. Later, a journey to Cork shows him not only the first ravages of famine but also principled callousness toward the starving, dying Irish peasantry. The hypocrisy manifest in the lofty abolitionist sentiments of his admirers and their heedlessness of terrific suffering all around them is distressing — and yet how can he speak out? His mission is to advance the cause of the three million enslaved people in America. The tension between Douglass's desire to speak against two species of injustice, and his knowledge that the one will damage the other is nicely played throughout by McCann.
It is when we get to George Mitchell that the novel loses momentum, though, to be sure, the negotiations over what became the Good Friday Accords did not proceed at the speed of greased lightning: the seemingly endless frustration and stall they entailed is certainly palpable here. Plunged into the mind of George Mitchell — a distinctly saintly arena judging by its furnishings — we witness his reflections on his life, his second, happy marriage, his baby boy, and this unsought-for task with its obdurate participants, which is eating into the time left to him on earth. It's a hard old station — for Mitchell and reader alike.
Happily, things picks up once the agreement has been reached. A fine fictional interlude shows us Lily Duggan's life in America, scenes from behind the lines during the Civil War and its terrible carnage; and, later, a vivid picture of the workings of an ice farm in the Midwest. Moving freely around in time, we follow the lives of Emily, Lottie, and Hannah, and arrive at one of the Trouble's pointless murders. In the end one has to say that this book does not really cohere as a novel, certainly not with the centripetal force of Let the Great World Spin. The business of pulling it together is beyond the power of four generations of fictional women and some desperate metaphors. Here, for instance, is Mitchell's feeling on the peace agreement, an image thrown into the breach: "He just wanted to land it. To take it down from where it was, aloft, like one of those great lumbering machines of the early part of the century, the crates of air and wood and wire they somehow flew across the water." Still, the stories of the first transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass in Ireland, and of life in the Midwest of the nineteenth century shine on their own.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
It was a modified bomber. A Vickers Vimy. All wood and linen and wire. She was wide and lumbering, but Alcock still thought her a nippy little thing. He patted her each time he climbed onboard and slid into the cockpit beside Brown. One smooth motion of his body. Hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder bar, he could already feel himself aloft.
What he liked most of all was rising up over the clouds and then flying in clean sunlight. He could lean out over the edge and see the shadowshift on the whiteness below, expanding and contracting on the surface of the clouds.
Brown, the navigator, was more reserved—it embarrassed him to make such a fuss. He sat forward in the cockpit, keen on what clues the machine might give. He knew how to intuit the shape of the wind, yet he put his faith in what he could actually touch: the compasses, the charts, the spirit level tucked down at his feet.
It was that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.
Alcock had piloted air-service fighters. Small bombs fell away from the undercarriage of his plane. A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upwards into the night. He leaned out from his open cockpit and watched the mushroom of smoke rise below. His plane leveled out and turned towards home. At times like that, Alcock craved anonymity. He flew in the dark, his plane open to the stars. Then an airfield would appear below, the razor wire illuminated like the altar of a strange church.
Brown had flown reconnaissance. He had a knack for the mathematics of flight. He could turn any sky into a series of numbers. Even on the ground he went on calculating, figuring out new ways to guide his planes home.
Both men knew exactly what it meant to be shot down.
The Turks caught Jack Alcock on a long-range bombing raid over Suvla Bay and pierced the plane with machine-gun fire, knocked off his port propeller. He and his two crewmen ditched at sea, swam to shore. They were marched naked to where the Turks had set up rows of little wooden cages for prisoners of war. Open to the weather. There was a Welshman beside him who had a map of the constellations, so Alcock practiced his navigation skills, stuck out under the nailheaded Turkish night: just one glance at the sky and he could tell exactly what time it was. Yet what Alcock wanted more than anything was to tinker with an engine. When he was moved to a detention camp in Kedos, he swapped his Red Cross chocolate for a dynamo, traded his shampoo for tractor parts, built a row of makeshift fans out of scrap wire, bamboo, bolts, batteries.
Teddy Brown, too, had become a prisoner of war, forced to land in France while out on photographic reconnaissance. A bullet shattered his leg. Another ruptured the fuel tank. On the way down he threw out his camera, tore up his charts, scattered the pieces. He and his pilot slid their B.E.2c into a muddy wheatfield, cut the engine, held their hands up. The enemy came running out of the forest to drag them from the wreck. Brown could smell petrol leaking from the tanks. One of the Krauts had a lit cigarette in his lips. Brown was known for his reserve. Excuse me, he called out, but the German kept coming forward, the cigarette flaring. Nein, nein. A little cloud of smoke came from the German’s mouth. Brown’s pilot finally lifted his arms and roared: For fucksake, stop!
The German paused in midstride, tilted his head back, paused, swallowed the burning cigarette, ran toward the airmen again.
It was something that made Brown’s son, Buster, laugh when he heard the story just before he, too, went to war, twenty years later. Excuse me. Nein, nein. As if the German had only the flap-end of his shirt sticking out, or had somehow neglected to tie his shoelace properly.
Brown was shipped home before the armistice, then lost his hat high in the air over Piccadilly Circus. The girls wore red lipstick. The hems of their dresses rose almost to their knees. He wandered along the Thames, followed the river until it crawled upwards to the sky.
Alcock didn’t make it back to London until December. He watched men in black suits and bowler hats pick their way amid the rubble. He joined in a game of football in an alley off the Pimlico Road, knocking a round pigskin back and forth. But he could already sense himself aloft again. He lit a cigarette, watched the smoke curl high and away.
When they met for the first time in the Vickers factory in Brook-lands, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. They didn’t want to remember the bombs that had dudded out, or the crash or burn, or the cellblocks they had been locked into, or what species of abyss they had seen in the dark.
Instead they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.
The prevailing winds blew east from Newfoundland, pushing hard and fast across the Atlantic. Eighteen hundred miles of ocean.
The men came by ship from England, rented rooms in the Cochrane Hotel, waited for the Vimy to arrive at the docks. It came boxed in forty-seven large wooden crates. Late spring. A whip of frost still in the air. Alcock and Brown hired a crew to drag the crates up from the harbor. They strapped the boxes to horses and carts, assembled the plane in the field.
The meadow sat on the outskirts of St. John’s, on a half-hill, with a level surface of three hundred yards, a swamp at one end, and a pine forest at the other. Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That’s what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.
To level out the meadow, they crimped blasting caps to fuses, shattered boulders with dynamite, leveled walls and fences, removed hillocks. It was summertime but still there was a chill in the air. Flocks of birds moved fluidly across the sky.
After fourteen days the field was ready. To most people it was simply another patch of land, but to the two pilots it was a fabulous aerodrome. They paced the grass runway, watched the breeze in the trees, looked for clues in the weather.
Crowds of rubberneckers flocked to see the Vimy. Some had never ridden in a motorcar, let alone seen a plane before. From a distance it looked as if it had borrowed its design from a form of dragonfly. It was 42.7 feet long, 15.25 feet high, with a wingspan of 68 feet. It weighed 13,000 pounds when the 870 gallons of petrol and the 40 gallons of oil were loaded. Eleven pounds per square foot. The cloth framework had thousands of individual stitches. The bomb spaces were replaced by enough fuel for 30 hours of flying. It had a maximum speed of 103 miles per hour, not counting the wind, a cruising speed of 90 mph and a landing speed of 45 mph. There were two water-cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines of 360 horsepower and a turnover rate of 1,080 revs per minute, with twelve cylinders in two banks of six, each engine driving a four-bladed wooden propeller.
The onlookers ran their hands along the struts, tapped the steel, pinged the taut linen of the wings with their umbrellas. Kids crayoned their names on the underside of the fuselage.
Photographers pulled black hoods over their lenses. Alcock mugged for the camera, shaded his hand to his eyes like an ancient explorer. Tally-ho! he shouted, before jumping the nine feet to the wet grass below.
The newspapers said anything was possible now. The world was made tiny. The League of Nations was being formed in Paris. W. E. B. Du Bois convened the Pan-African Congress with delegates from fifteen countries. Jazz records could be heard in Rome. Radio enthusiasts used vacuum tubes to transmit signals hundreds of miles. Some day soon it might be possible to read the daily edition of the San Francisco Examiner in Edinburgh or Salzburg or Sydney or Stockholm.
In London, Lord Northcliffe of the Daily Mail had offered £10,000 to the first men to land on one side of the Atlantic or the other. At least four other teams wanted to try. Hawker and Grieve had already crashed into the water. Others, like Brackley and Kerr, were positioned in airfields along the coast, waiting for the weather to turn. The flight had to be done in seventy-two hours. Nonstop.
There were rumors of a rich Texan who wanted to try, and a Hungarian prince and, worst of all, a German from the Luftstreitkräfte who had specialized in long-range bombing during the war.
The features editor of the Daily Mail, a junior of Lord Northcliffe’s, was said to have developed an ulcer thinking about a possible German victory.
—A Kraut! A bloody Kraut! God save us!
He dispatched reporters to find out if it was possible that the enemy, even after defeat, could possibly be ahead in the race.
On Fleet Street, down at the stone, where the hot type was laid, he paced back and forth, working the prospective headlines over and over. On the inside of his jacket his wife had stitched a Union Jack, which he rubbed like a prayer cloth.
—Come on boys, he muttered to himself. Hup two. On home now, back to Blighty.
Every morning the two airmen woke in the Cochrane Hotel, had their breakfast of porridge, eggs, bacon, toast. Then they drove through the steep streets, out the Forest Road, towards a field of grass sleeved with ice. The wind blew bitter blasts off the sea. They rigged wires into their flight suits so they could run warmth from a battery, and they stitched extra fur on the inside flaps of their helmets, their gloves, their boots.
Elizabeth Strout: I love the wide range of your narratives, how you dare to cover so many aspects of world events through the personal stories of those involved. How do you make the decision to end where you end, and begin where you begin? Is this an intuitive sense for you?
Colum McCann: Writing is very much about the intuitive, the gut instinct, the shotgun leap into the unknown. Most of the time, I don’t necessarily know where I’m going. I have a general goal, an end-line, but I’m not sure how it is that I’m going to get there. Being too conscious of a journey brings a malady to it. You can overthink it sometimes. It’s better to go with the gut feeling.
I think it’s very much akin to being an adventurer or an explorer. You know you want to find new territory. The nature of its newness makes it inherently exciting. You cast yourself out in a small boat in the hope that you will get somewhere. Most of the time you end up capsizing or catching the wrong current or, even worse, ship-wrecking. But every now and then—when the words are moving, and the sentences begin to align themselves, and the imaginative intent has caught fire with language—you strike new land. A sort of Galápagos of the imagination, I suppose. This is where the real exploration begins. You walk out and you meet new characters. And, in the best writing, you might create what amounts to a new theory.
And there’s something about the explorer in the reader too. You are casting into a new land, a new way of seeing. That’s how I feel when I read your work—when I got to explore Crosby in Olive Kitteridge, it was that sort of journey, it just opened me up. I love when that happens.
So for me it’s all about intuition. And beyond intuition lies what is hopefully a deep intelligence that we were looking for all along.
ES: You have a great understanding of how to use “real-life” events, and people, within the texture of the novel. What is your sense of fact versus fiction, and why do you think people tend to believe they are so different? I always get a kick out of people who say they don’t read fiction because it isn’t “true.” I’d love to know your thoughts on this.
CM: Ah, yes, what about all those embarrassing parties where you have to introduce yourself? You meet a couple and say, or rather admit, that you’re a writer of . . . stories. The woman’s face lights up and she says she loves to read fiction but her husband (always a little comfortably smug) looks beyond your shoulder and says he doesn’t read fiction at all, as if to put an end to the conversation—he only reads nonfiction because he is only interested in “fact.” It happens so often, I’m amazed by it. “Oh, yes, I don’t read fiction at all.” As if it’s a strange badge of honor.
But this line between fiction and nonfiction is a solid indicator of where we are right now, where so much of our national thinking occurs. If we watch Fox News, do we really think that we are witnesses to “fact”? If we allow our politicians to send our children off to war, do we really take on face value the “fact” that the offending nation has chemical weapons? What is fact? What is fiction? It’s one of our great political and social conundrums.
I suppose one of the reasons for writing TransAtlantic is that I wanted to question the gulf between what is “real” and what is “imagined.” Is there any difference at all? Can the imagined be considered real? And vice versa? Is Tom Joad not “real” because he was imagined by Steinbeck, for instance? Does this mean that the book we consider to be iconic in relation to our understanding of the Great Depression is actually irrelevant? To me, a much more interesting word than fiction is story, and then the word truth. Steinbeck allows us to know the Great Depression precisely because he fictionalized the truth. It is this way with so many of the great books. Why do I understand early-twentieth-century Ireland? Because I read Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Why do I love turn-of-the-century New Orleans? Because I read about Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.
A story is a story whether it is based on real-life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.” I have a duty to all my characters. And I want to braid the tapestry together so that “fiction” and “nonfiction” get confused.
Another question that fascinates me is the way in which we construct fictions around “historical” figures. Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do they have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the ones who supposedly own history?
ES: Wonderful! Yes, real people should be as fully fleshed as invented people (and who isn’t invented, I ask you?). The women you invent feel as fully fleshed as anyone. It seems clear to me that you are just as invested in their stories as in any man’s. Is this a conscious decision? Or more of that gut working intuitively?
CM: I think we all know that women are so often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to own the novel. To say that their stories matter, not only to themselves but to history too. And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.
There’s a symmetry in the book—three male “nonfiction” narratives, three female “fiction” narratives, and then a lone voice at the end, almost as if she has been narrating the whole novel. There’s a meaning behind this madness, I hope . . . it is, after all, a fairly anonymous woman, or rather a supposedly anonymous woman, who gets to have the last say. “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.”
ES: One of my favorite parts of this book involves Frederick Douglass going to Ireland. I think a lot of Americans may not realize he took this trip, and yet it is such an amazing tale. Was this something that you wanted to write about for a while, or did it arise out of the history of Ireland as you were rendering it?
CM: Douglass led me into the book. That was the original impetus. Not many Americans knew about his trip to Ireland and England, but not many Irish people even knew who Frederick Douglass was. He was largely omitted from the Irish history books, at least up until the 1990s (150 years after his journey), when scholars started to re-discover him when shaping up narratives that examined the history between the Irish and the Africans and the African Americans. Most people had relegated the story to the footnotes of history. But it was an incredible journey and a tremendous insight into the depth and character of Douglass.
Originally, after Let the Great World Spin, I wanted to write another sort of book altogether, a piece about contemporary surveillance cameras, believe it or not. But I just couldn’t catch that book, in fact I hated it, and I kept coming back to the idea of Douglass in Ireland. And the fact that his trip coincided with the beginning of the Famine. I was corralled. The only way I could shake it would be if I wrote about him. That’s how it is—we write towards our obsessions. And I was especially taken by this notion of a young black slave landing in Ireland and having enough experience to say, “Lo! the chattel becomes a man!” Then he looks around and knows that there are many forms of chatteldom. He struggles to become himself, as we all eventually do.
I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I wanted my Douglass to be authentic. I wanted him to emerge in all his complications.
ES: You do even more, though, which is to carry this up to the present day, and that’s so important, I think, to show the continuum we are all existing on.
CM: I suppose I wanted to write about Douglass because he could lead me up to examine some issues in contemporary Ireland . . . especially the peace process and the idea of the Celtic Tiger, our collapsing economy. The peace process in particular is crucial to our experience of the twentieth century. So I began with Douglass . . . and ended up with Senator George Mitchell. Two incredible statesmen who had made significant transatlantic journeys.
From there I began to try to weave all the stories together. The novel, therefore, I suppose, tries to become an alternative way of telling history. We cannot understand the present unless we dissect the past.
ES: How long do ideas tend to germinate in your mind before you find yourself setting them down on the page?
CM: I wish I knew! Douglass had been hanging around for a couple of years. Mitchell too. But you never really know what it is that fires them into the front of your brain. Perhaps it is desperation, or perhaps it’s inspiration. Most likely a combination of both.
ES: There is clearly an enormous amount of what one would call research that goes into this book. Did you write with one hand and read with the other? Or do these two parts of the process take place quite separately for you?
CM: I love research. That’s the part of the “job” that fires me up. I generally write towards something I want to know. I hope that I am learning all the time. Stepping out into new territory. But you can do too much research sometimes and it can begin to hinder the novel. So one has to be very careful. I always look for the “divine detail” in my research, that one thing that only an expert might know but the general public can recognize as being true.
For example, I give Douglass a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in Washington, D.C., but I have no idea whether or not he brought them with him to Ireland. In fact, he probably didn’t. But it says so much about his character—his vanity, his stubborness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license, but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.
So the research blends in with the imaginative act until, really, they are one and the same.
ES: Of course, I am always interested in the concept of home, and the changing face of home. I wonder what you feel about this, having been born in Ireland and living in New York. Is writing about Ireland a form of love?
CM: I like this concept of trying to understand what is “home,” and I think you do it beautifully, whether that be the coast of Maine or the meadows of New Hampshire, and I love those writers who make me rethink my notions of home, whether they be a physical place or an imaginative space. I was born in Dublin, but—right up until TransAtlantic—I had only really mentioned Dublin in one short story and a small section of Let the Great World Spin. That’s twenty-five years of writing and I had more or less ignored the town where I spent my first twenty years. This baffles me, and I have no real answer for it. Of course, I do go back in TransAtlantic, but even then mostly as a visitor. I wish I could understand this better, but I’m forced to say that I’m stumped. I’m much more comfortable being “elsewhere.” Of course, New York is my home now, and I have a family here.
I like the notion that we can belong in many different places, what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels” of the world.
ES: Tell us about the nonprofit organization Narrative 4 that you are involved with; it sounds fascinating to me. I’ve always thought of novels as powerful social tools that can teach through empathy what it is like to be another person.
CM: In 2012, a group of about twenty-five writers and activists got together and began developing a story exchange program where we wanted to develop notions of radical empathy. We wanted, as writers, to give something back. To be socially engaged. To push the parameters. And, quite frankly, to be relevant. We were all of the opinion that one of the big failures we have in the world these days is the failure of empathy. And so in 2013 we founded a group called Narrative 4.
What the group had in common was our love of storytelling, and we knew that storytelling legislates the world in so many ways. Stories are our vast democracy. We all have them. We all need them. They cross all boundaries. And so we wanted to concentrate, at first, on young people and have them step into each other’s shoes. The goal is to get young people together to tell one another’s stories. The kid from Belfast with the kid from Detroit. The teen from Nazareth with the teen from Haiti. For them to get together and share one another’s stories and walk in one another’s shoes. To have a responsibility for someone else’s life—if even for just a moment, which, if we do this correctly, will move through a lifetime and become part of a global narrative. The key to transformation lies in the sharing: when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and retell it as if you’ve lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through his or her eyes.
I personally don’t think that literature or stories can necessarily change the world—but they can become a wall against the general despair.
ES: Narrative 4 sounds like an amazing organization, very exciting. I wonder if there is any one moment in your career that stands out when you felt you experienced your work as, as you say, a wall against despair.
CM: Oh, absolutely. Just last year I had a moment that floored me, humbled me, taught me—-I don’t really know how to describe it, except that it went to the heart of my ideas about literature. Shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I got a letter from Lee Keylock, a high school teacher in Newtown. He said that he and a couple of other teachers had been searching for a book to help navigate the grief of the older students. They chose Let the Great World Spin. I was stunned. It seemed to validate so much of what I had been saying about literature for years: that we enter into these narratives to learn and to heal. We move beyond empathy to experience. In April 2013, I visited the school and sat with those kids. But I didn’t end up teaching them anything—they taught me. They were the ones who talked about morality, about finding light in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available for that is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience but profoundly touching. Lee is now a significant part of Narrative 4. The story goes on. Once again, the world doesn’t end on us. . . .
1. In this novel, Colum McCann writes about four men: Jack Alcock, Teddy Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Senator George Mitchell. Were you familiar with any or all of these figures before reading TransAtlantic? Did what you learn about them surprise you? Do you find their journeys thematically linked?
2. As Alcock and Brown fly across the Atlantic they have several close calls, including a moment when their plane spins out of control and a rough landing, all in the fierce cold and damp. Do you think anyone could, nowadays, make the same sort of journey they did? Why or why not? What sorts of physical challenges remain for adventurers and explorers?
3. Douglass forms relationships with several women in the novel: we see him write home to his wife, Anna, but he also indelibly shapes the maid Lily and becomes friends with Isabel Jennings. What do you think draws these very different people together? How do these small threads eventually create a tapestry?
4. Why do you think Lily follows Douglass to America? What does she hope to find there? Does this novel confront the impossibility of the American dream?
5. Book One is not chronological: after Alcock and Brown’s flight in 1919, we travel back to Douglass’s tour of Ireland in 1845, and then move forward once more to 1998 and Mitchell. How would your reading of the novel change if this section were differently arranged? What would happen to the novel if the sections concerning the women were woven directly into the stories of the men?
6. In the third section of the book, McCann takes us into the mind of Senator George Mitchell during the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. What do you know about the Irish “Troubles”? How does Mitchell’s story enrich or change what you already knew?
7. The novel is structured so we meet the four men, seemingly unrelated, first—and then learn that women connected to all of them are multiple generations of one family. Why do you think McCann structures TransAtlantic in this way? What do the very male first half of the book and the very female second half tell us about men, women, and how we legislate history?
8. Lily loses most of the men she loves—the father of her first son, Tad; her sons, Tad, Adam, and Benjamin; and her husband, Jon. What do you think gives her the strength to continue on and become a successful merchant? Do you admire her? What does this say about the role of women in history?
9. In the course of TransAtlantic we see many technologies—to which we’re well accustomed today—at the moments they were still new, including airplanes, cameras, and automobiles. What does the novel tell us about these devices and how they bring people together (and tear people apart)?
10. There are two civil wars in the novel: the American Civil War, in which Lily loses her son, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which takes Lottie’s grandson, Hannah’s son. What does TransAtlantic show us about war? Who are its victims?
11. Why do you think Hannah leaves the letter behind with her hosts?
12. Some of the characters in the novel are based on real figures; others are entirely fictional. Is it easy to tell the two apart? How do these sets of characters illuminate one another? McCann has said in interviews that “the real is often imagined,” and “the imagined is often real.” What do you think he means by this?
13. The novel begins with an Eduardo Galeano quote that ends, “the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.” Why do you think McCann chose to open TransAtlantic this way? How do you see the stories in the novel—“the time that was”—relating to today, “the time that is”?
14. As its title suggests, TransAtlantic is about Ireland and North America, and the ideas and people that cross between the two. What do you feel makes this international relationship special? What draws families and individuals back and forth between these countries?
15. What is the function of the Prologue of the novel, set in 2012? How does it frame the novel? How does it tie in with the last line of the book? What is McCann suggesting about the circularity of human experience?
This is a complex book spanning multiple characters and multiple continents. The writing is rich and inviting. The navigation of jumping from character to character is done with ease. This is a writer who knows how to entertain an audience.
14 out of 16 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Colum McCann is a brilliant author. The way he tells stories that span 150 years and yet does so in a way that is easy to follow and understand it amazing. I loved this book.
5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2013
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There is a shock of pleasure midway into this novel when one realizes three disparate stories of courageous, capable men on two continents are connected through the women they’ve known. The stories of these brave men are delicious vignettes to be supped upon at leisure…there is no bustle and rush as one story ends and another begins, each as delectable as the last, but that thread of connection is the mystery we struggle to untangle throughout.
Arthur Brown, one of the first transatlantic flight team; Frederick Douglass, former slave and speaker for emancipation; George Mitchell, principal negotiator for Northern Ireland’s peace accords: these men have a faint connection over 150 years and that connection is an unopened, undelivered airmail letter that accompanied that the flight crew on their 1919 ground-breaking flight.
The prose seems to match the stories: when we read of the transatlantic flight, the writing is muscular, propulsive. When Douglass visits the Irish countryside, there is a smoky wistfulness clinging to the pages. And in the section on George Mitchell flying back and forth to Europe from New York, we read the sheer effort in the lines.
The novel then reveals the women that have touched these men, and by weaving in their lives the underlying links are uncovered. It brought to mind the theory of “six degrees of separation” and how closely, yet loosely, we all revolve around one another on the planet. If ever you doubted the reason for “treating another as you wish to be treated,” this is another glimpse into our intimate connection with one another, years and continents apart notwithstanding.
I have not read other works by Colum McCann, though I have of course heard of the much-lauded Let the Great World Spin. That book alone is reason enough to be interested in this novel—to see what the man has come up with now. But I can’t help but think this new novel didn’t quite pull together great truths or leave us with something to cogitate and remember as the years roll on. Somehow literature, or the work of great novelists, should leave us something to consider, to remember, to use in our own lives. If there was anything here, it would be that connectedness—how close we are despite the distance, despite the years—but perhaps there could have been something more to round out the effort of writing (and reading) a long book.
Of course, when one picks real-world figures, one is somewhat constrained by their history, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary to make them living men, just as the women were constructions to suit the work. When I read fiction I assume the writer is not strictly truthful, so placing a real figure in the piece makes the reader question both veracity and the lack of it. Perhaps this is one point?
In any case, I can recommend this book to writers and readers for its organizing concept alone. There is something magical about tracing a thread of connection, however tenuous, over a century or more. It makes an intriguing premise for a novel.
4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I loved the mix of fiction and nonfiction together. The author is a master of blending the two to great effect. Two thumbs up.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 8, 2013
Beautfully written Fully realized characters. Real women. Takes you to Ireland from your sofa.
3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 12, 2013
Posted July 12, 2013
After reading the reviews of this book, I anxiously awaited the Publisher's release. It was the most disappointing book I have read this year. I am not familiar with the author so did not know what to expect. I feel it was recommended based on the name of the author, and not by the merits of the author's writing. The reviews and recommendations were very misleading. Many authors are able to successfully transcend lengthy periods of time and locations in unfolding a story, McCann's efforts were not. I will think twice before choosing to read a McCann book.
1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Author Colum McCann delivers a masterpiece. The story spans 150 years and many characters who are linked in various ways - as revealed as the book goes on. The writing is brilliant. The characters are interesting to get to know.
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Posted June 24, 2013
Four stories are interwoven in this novel of escaping the boundaries of earth and soaring to a peaceful yet ecstatic state of mind and soul. Yet this is the stuff of history so often given noble status and sometimes just ignored as a cog in a wheel. Colum McCann gives all equally dignified and seminal status!
First we read about the first flight in 1919 from England to Ireland of Arthur Brown and his transatlantic team, flying a former bomber plane used in the First World War. One carries a letter that never gets delivered but will show up years and years later to be given dubious recognition.
Then we meet Frederick Douglass who arrives in Ireland in 1845 and again in 1846 to speak and listen about the emancipation of slavery while he observes the beginning of the Great Famine and the hatred between Ireland and England over the fight for Irish independence.
The story of George Mitchell’s diplomatic quest in 1998 for Irish Independence is told from multiple perspectives, but it’s mainly Mitchell’s perseverance and frustration that stands out vividly in a cause with so many points of view and demands that it’s mind-boggling. It feels hopeless yet Mitchell never gives up hope, even as he truly yearns to be home in America with his wife and infant son.
One young woman is inspired by Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech about freedom and her story is the multigenerational story told for the last portion of the novel. This is a story about women whose strength is what forges great nations behind the scenes and beyond the ephemeral talk and ideas of politicians, poets and storytellers themselves.
It takes a bit of time before one begins to connect the dots in this very fine historical and contemporary novel. It’s truly a timeless classic work of fiction presented in a highly literate yet readable style. While it doesn’t brook foolish theories or deny the negative aspects of people or issues, it dreams larger than the muck it seeks to surmount. For that it deserves great praise and high recommendations!!!
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 26, 2014
Loved the way the world and the decades became small as I read what was essentially a family saga with roots in Ireland. Helpful to know when starting to read that the threads will ultimately connect. Nice on the Nook because when I lose track of a character I can just review with the Find. feature. The section on Frederick Douglass was fascinating.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 17, 2014
A several generations saga set for the most part in Ireland. From the era of slavery to the beginnings of aviation it tells quite the history. There is also a "mysterious" letter through the years that, once opened, would make a way for a new family history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2014
Posted June 10, 2014
Um, kind of, but not really. I'm a girl and, yes, I definately have traits/personality that would not be described as femine by society, but I don't feel the need to be transgender. Yes, there have been times when I wished was male because they seem to have easier lives, but I've never considered changing myself. I guess what I'm trying to ask is - When you say "I felt like a boy trapped in a girl's body..." are you saying that a boy has one kind of personality and a girl has another? Because I feel that only thing inherently different about males and females is their gentalia. I just want to say I fully support your chioce, I just don't understand it. Thanks.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 9, 2014
Posted February 1, 2014
This book was so boring and is only the third book I have ever stopped reading without finishing it. About the time I would get into one of the stories, the chapter would end and a new one would begin. I hated this format.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 31, 2014
I enjoyed the book but not as much as my Irish friends. The part about George Mitchell was fascinating. It was an interesting book - just not one of my favorites.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 14, 2013
Posted October 18, 2013
About as slow as a turtle in mud. Needed more narrative and less, detailed, pinpoint description. Also I figured the three story lines would intersect but when they did, a let down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 1, 2013
I heard a lot of great things about this book, but I had to put it down - the no quotes thing is really annoying me and I just can't get into it. Sad I wasted the money to buy it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 4, 2013
I rarely ever put a book down once I buy it. But, this one I did. The two stories I read were just so-so, and left one feeling that something was missing, like: Why is there no closure to these? The writing style is unusual, but quite descriptive, and colorful, but had I known these stories were not related, or basically short stories, I would not have put my money down. A bit disappointing overall, but with the B&N discount, I'm not crying about this loss. I doubt I will buy anothe novel by this author.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.