Author: Colum McCann
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Literary Fiction
Having visited Dublin in the past, I always look forward to reading books based in Ireland. What attracted me to Transatlantic by Colum McCann is that it’s a work of historical fiction where 2 of the 3 true stories were ones that I was familiar with: Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland at the beginning of the potato famine and Senator George Mitchell’s peace negotiations during the Irish ‘troubles.’ In addition, the book follows two pilots in the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Weaving in and out of these three stories, is the fictional account of four generations of women from the Duggan family and how they connected to these powerful men. The book spans 2 continents and 3 centuries.
The story I was most taken with was that of the penniless Lily Duggan, who was inspired by Douglass’ visit to leave Ireland for America. There she marries and has a family. We eventually see how she takes over the family ice-making business after tragedy strikes and becomes a successful business woman. I was particularly taken by McCann’s description of how blocks of ice are carved out of frozen lakes and transported in this pre-refrigeration era. He vividly portrayed the dangers involved in such an endeavor.
A lot of times when I read historical fiction, the events are ones that I’m not familiar with. However, the stories of Sen. George Mitchell traveling to and from America to Ireland to broker the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was something I lived through and followed in the news. So, it was really wonderful to get an insider perspective.
Some days he wishes that he could empty the chambers of the men, fill the halls with women: the short sharp shock of three thousand two hundred mothers. The ones who picked through the supermarket debris for pieces of their dead husbands. The ones who still laundered their gone son’s bed sheets by hand. The one who kept an extra teacup at the end of the table, in case of miracles. The elegant ones, the angry ones, the clever ones, the ones in hairnets, the ones exhausted by all the dying. They carried their sorrow — not with photos under their arms, or with public wailing, or by beating their chests, but with a weariness around the eyes.
The tale of Douglass’ time in Ireland was inspired by a letter he wrote that was published in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. Douglass toured Ireland and Britain for two years. There he met and was inspired by Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell. His time in Ireland gave him a totally different view of how folks of color could be treated. However, one of the more interesting passages, is how Douglass felt that while he was free to speak out about American slavery, he didn’t feel the same freedom to speak out against what was causing the potato famine. He had to be “on his best behavior” as he felt they were always looking for him to fall short.
McCann uses the first person narrative with both Mitchell and Douglass to give us access to their thoughts about events happening because of their presence. In fact, McCann was able to interview Mitchell as background for the book. And like Douglass, Mitchell also was keenly aware of having to delicately maneuver through the different factions — a wrong word or gesture could derail the process.
The story that inspired the title of the book follows Alcock and Brown’s first non-stop transatlantic flight in a converted bomber from Newfoundland to Galway, Ireland. While a lot of the description on how the flight occurred was technical, McCann also made you feel the icy cold and dangers that went along with that flight.
Anytime something in a novel interests me, I love to perform a Google and/or Wikipedia search to learn more. I came across a documentary called Frederick Douglass and the White Negro that peaked my curiosity. It chronicles Douglass’ trip to Ireland and the relationship between the Irish and African Americans during the American Civil War. The documentary also includes material from Noel Ignatiev, author of How The Irish Became White. I read this book several years ago and would love to view the documentary. Of course, after a quick search, it’s not available at NetFlix (no surprise there). I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy some other way.
Transatlantic was nominated for the 2013 Booker Prize longlist. Watch Colum McCann discuss the book at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC.