I was doubtful that the structure of this novel would work for me. McCann first tells the story of three important but unrelated events: the first airborne crossing of the Atlantic, the visit to Ireland in 1845 by Frederick Douglass, and George Mitchell’s work for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. As he told the story of each of these momentous events, one or two minor women fictional characters were mentioned whose stories became the focus of the second half of the book. As it became clear that was going to happen, I feared that I would find the women-as-minor-figures in men’s-important-work frame to be problematic. The impressive part is that the women and their connections to each other from 1845 to 2012 was so compelling. McCann lavished love and attention on those characters.
The first crossing of the Atlantic occurred in 1919, and aviators Alcock and Brown were veterans of the war. They flew from Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland and landed in a bog so the nose slammed into the ground and the tail flipped up. They had mechanical failures, heavy fog, extreme cold, were not able to communicate with each other, and yet they made it.
Learning about Frederick Douglass’ experience in Ireland makes me want to read more about him. He wrote,
On occasion I have to pause, astounded that I am not fugitive anymore. My mind unshackled. They cannot place me, or even imagine me, upon the auction block. I do not fear the clink of a chain, or crack of whip, or turn of door handle.
He was, as McCann wrote, “hailed most everywhere he went. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, it baffled him.” And later, “He felt, for the first time ever maybe, that he could properly inhabit his skin.”
On the way to Cork, his host took a wrong turn and they traveled through the countryside and encountered the starving and dying. “Famine. The word had not occurred to him before. He had seen hunger in America, but never a countryside threatened with blight. The smell still clung to him.”
It was wonderful to read the story of George Mitchell’s work for the Good Friday Agreement, the story of a relentless quiet diplomacy overcoming generations of strife. To reacquaint myself with Senator Mitchell, I learned from Wikipedia that he was the Senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995. Would that the current Mitchell in the Senate were anything like George. McCann describes his approach for the talks here:
Still, he was sure some of them wanted a slice of anger from him. To stumble somehow. To say the wrong thing. So they could apportion the blame away from themselves. But he figured out ways to fade into the background, stuck to silence, looked over the rim of his glasses. He disliked his own importance in the process.
We encounter Lily first when she was a maid in the household Douglass visited in Dublin. He encounters her again in Cork after she walked there on the first leg of her journey to America. In the second half of the book the wonderful story of Lily’s life in the US is told. Lily’s daughter Emily and granddaughter Lottie make an appearance in the Alcock and Brown Atlantic crossing and Lottie and her daughter Hannah cross paths with George Mitchell when he was in Northern Ireland.
Ultimately we begin to see the connections among the characters and their widely separated eras, as they traverse the Atlantic in both directions. I don’t want to end without mentioning the entrancing writing McCann has given us. Just one vision that I loved: in describing rural Ireland in 1998 he says, “Sheep and cattle paraded in the fields.”
Colum McCann, TransAtlantic, Random House, 2013, 304 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.