Colum McCann weaves a transcendental mediation in the book TransAtlantic. This experiment in time, historical figures, and the stories of a maternal line of one family spans the years 1844 to 2012 in a non-linear way, leaping from era to era in North America (Canada and the United States) and the western Europe (Ireland and England).
The reader is immersed in historical fiction with an insight into two British airmen, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, making the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic after the first world war in 1919, Frederick Douglass speaking in Ireland with bewilderment at being treated with human dignity while observing the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, and finally former Maine Senator George Mitchell helping negotiate the Northern Ireland peace accord between 1995 and 1998. The first movement of TransAtlantic is a meditation on history and identity with two regions connected in spirit and identity.
These disparate events are brought closer together and made more intimate not by any logical connection but by looking around and seeing a single family of ladies on the periphery of Douglass, Alcock, Brown, and Mitchell taking on a larger role in making the world smaller. The second major movement of the book opens with this quote from Wendell Berry‘s poem The Rising:
“But this is not the story of life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.”
The historical figures connect to The Rising by being the interconnection of the three threads made by the historical figures. There is Lily Duggan, mother to Emily Ehrlich. Emily Ehrlich is the mother to Lottie and grandmother to Hannah. It is Lily that is moved by Douglass’ words about possibility and freedom that prompts her to head to America with a child who dies in the Civil War. Emily is born of Lily’s marriage to John Erlich.
Emily learns to read and write, and writes a letter of thanks to Isabel Jennings, who had hosted Frederick Douglass in Ireland all those years ago. Emily had asked Jack Alcock to deliver it with his transcontinental flight. Alcock failed in this deliver, and returned the unopened letter from 1919 to Emily ten years later when Lottie with her mother Emily were writing an anniversary story.
Lottie meets a man that she later marries while conducting the Alcock anniversary interview and photo shoot with her mother. The family fortune for Lottie and her daughter Hannah is comparatively small when measured against the wealth enjoyed by Emily. This partly happened because Lottie’s husband was less well-to-do. Hannah’s son Thomas is killed setting decoys for a hunting event at the cottage where she and Thomas lived. As Thomas theoretically died at the hands of soldiers that would swear by the peace negotiated with George Mitchell, Hannah finds some measure of peace after the loss.
Finances grow devastatingly worse for Hannah. Hannah wants to sell the letter written by Emily since it might reveal something that would damage the reputation of Frederick Douglass. The sealed letter was forthcoming with only the mysterious answer of a slight thank you for services offered while visiting the Jennings household. Hannah’s stay at the cottage was further coming to an end, and she waxes reminiscent of the lives of her lady ancestors who came before her:
“The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
TransAtlantic becomes a contemplation of the endeavors, struggles, and sad tragedies of life. The narrative style of the book will challenge many readers with an intellectualism that almost defies the transcendentalism that it feels like the author, Colum McCann, was pursuing. It feels like this book will mostly be appreciated by bookish, professorial types of readers. As a result, my rating is 3.5-stars out of a potential 5.0-stars.
Matt – Wednesday, January 24, 2018.