‘TransAtlantic’ a journey of timeless quests

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 7, 2013

“TransAtlantic,” by Colum McCann. Random House. 2013. 304 pp. $27.

Colum McCann has done it again — woven together seemingly disparate casts, over a long period of time, for one fascinating story.
“Transatlantic” starts with a 1919 flight across the Atlantic, from Canada to Ireland, blends in Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland in 1845, then picks up threads from the two events to tell a story that explores our sense of self, extols the value of family, shows the powerful and the poor. McCann encompasses humanity and its challenges in a trip through time and across continents.
His writing is, as always, simply beautiful. His use of words is poetic, his expression exquisite. His facile coverage of important events and singular lives creates a book that will linger in many memories.
Particularly in his section about Douglass’ visit to Ireland, McCann uses his gift to evoke purpose, drive, discomfort, all with short, declarative sentences and punchy sentence fragments that put the reader in Douglass’ mind and heart, from his nightly writings, sleeves pulled up, ink on his fingers, to his exertions with barbells to clear his mind. His discomfort at being a specimen, at being worshipped. One can see Douglass’ impressive figure, his commanding presence. McCann, out of necessity, puts words in his mouth — but words the author knows ring true. The staccato style of this section brings the abolitionist to full life: “When he had first found language, in his boyhood days, it had felt to him like carving open a tree. Now he had to be more careful. He did not want to slip up. He was, after all, being watched by Webb and the others: root, blossom, stem. It was essential to hold his nerve to summon things into being by the mysterious alchemy of language. Atlantic. Atlas. Aloft. He was holding the image of his own people up; Sometimes it was weight enough to stagger under.”
From Douglass’ struggle comes the link to America, which brings us back to Ireland, where the last thread fades into history.
Bur first, McCann transports us to the recent past, 1998, and a living, breathing character, former Sen. George Mitchell, who was named chairman of the International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland, and chairman of the peace negotiations, which climaxed with the historic Good Friday agreement.
McCann writes that he had Mitchell’s cooperation in re-creating the negotiations, and Mitchell’s life aloft, as he flew constantly from Washington to London to Ireland to New York to broker peace. In simply describing the rigors of Mitchell’s travels, his longing for his wife and young son, McCann mirrors the longing and frustration of the people seeking an end to conflict. At the same time, it reflects Douglass’ struggle to keep working for freedom, to put his self aside in the battle.
“How many times has it been written and rewritten?” Mitchell ponders in the book. “He and his team have allowed them to exhaust the language. Day after day, week after week, month after month. To roil in their own boredom. To talk through the vitriol towards a sort of bewilderment that such a feeling could have existed at all.”
McCann then picks up Lily’s story — a teenage maid in the Dublin house where Douglass stayed. It’s 1863 now, and she’s in America, working as a nurse in a battlefield hospital, among rotting wounded men and the constant smell of death. She fears for her son, a soldier somewhere in the war, and dreads the possibility she might see him in her camp of despair. When she understands her life there is over, she leaves with the iceman and starts life in America again, bearing him six children. Lily Duggan, now Ehrlich, depends on cold for a living. Reading the intricacies of ice growth and harvest brings to life the dangers of what we now take for granted as an instant commodity.
Struggles fill Lily’s life, echoing the theme of all the other stories, and she’s left with little but her daughter Emily and a desire to see Douglass one final time.
Now it’s 1929, and Emily is 10 years out from writing about the great flight of Alcock and Brown across the Atlantic, still striving: “The best moments were when her mind seemed to implode. It made a shambles of time. All the light disappeared. The infinity of her inkwell. A quiver of dark at the end of the pen.”
Accompanied by her daughter, Lottie, who was 17 when she photographed the brave pilots and their refurbished Vickers Vimy plane, they are leaving Canada for a long trip overseas, where Emily will meet Brown again for a new story. He’s given up flight altogether. Lottie meets the love of her life there, bringing us to Lottie’s cottage on Strangford Lough or lake, in Northern Ireland. The loop is drawn tighter.
Now, it’s 1978, and Lottie is playing tennis with her grandson, named after his late great-uncle. They travel to Lottie’s cottage, now occupied by her daughter, Hannah, mother to young Tomas. Lottie spends time reminiscing, looking at a letter her mother sent with the pilot Brown across the Atlantic in 1919 that was never delivered to its addressee. She’s kept it unopened all these years, having some vague idea it had to do with Lily, her ancestor, and her meeting with Frederick Douglass. But the letter means little when another generation of Lily’s descendants is knocked down — the Troubles exploding at Hannah’s back door.
Come forward to 2011, and now Hannah is a woman in her 70s, struggling to hold on to the cottage, the family money long gone, the land worth enough to force her out, the final line from Ireland to America and back raveling out.
Hannah’s struggles, her hopes for the carefully preserved letter and her search for answers reflect our own struggles to maintain a sense of self, to be a presence in a world eager to ignore what came before.
Hannah ponders, in her aloneness, “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.”
McCann has brought us here, he’s spun out the past to show us the tragedies, triumphs and tribulations. He’s shown us times of great joy, carefully molded with the utmost human attention. He’s shown us history, real characters, carried us to the fiction of Lily’s line, then wrapped it up, neatly, finally. Hannah watches another generation in her cottage, telling a story: “Once upon a time, she began. I stood at the door and listened. There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t in part, at least, addressed to the past.”
It’s another master stroke from an extraordinary author, a breathtaking thing of delicate beauty.