From The Record, June 16
I must admit to having some prejudice when it came to approaching Colum McCann’s 2013 novel Trans Atlantic (available in the Library). I had really enjoyed his 2010 work, Let the Great World Spin (also in the Library). What really grabbed me was the way McCann wove together the stories of different people whose lives are brought into contact by the chance unfolding of seemingly random events.
TransAtlantic does not disappoint. McCann again blends stories of real historical figures with fictional characters he has created. The first half of the book tells the stories of four real men, all of whom are travelling from America to Ireland. And all of them have occasion to meet the fictional women who make up four generations of the same family.
The first men we meet are Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, waiting in Newfoundland to begin their historic 1919 journey—the first trans-Atlantic flight. Among the reporters who have gathered to witness this event is Emily Ehrlich, who writes for the St. John’s Evening Telegram. (She is often accompanied by her teenage daughter Lottie.) The night before the Vickers Vimy is scheduled to depart Lottie brings Brown a letter at his hotel. It has been written by her mother and is addressed to a family in Cork. This first piece of transatlantic airmail is going to wind its way through several chapters of the story.
The next man we encounter, already arrived in Dublin, is Frederick Douglass, the former slave from Maryland. The year is 1845 and Douglass has come to help promote the sale of his book and to drum up support for the abolitionist cause in Europe. It is also the first year of the blight that will destroy most of the potato crop in Ireland for three straight years.
Douglass is billeted with his publisher Richard Webb in a better part of town. Douglass is taken aback when he sees the conditions that prevail in the poorer parts of Dublin. White people in America do not live like that. He is also surprised by the reaction he generates among people who have never seen a black man before and do not expect him to be so well dressed. And he is intrigued by Lily Duggan, a seventeen-year-old maid in Webb`s household..
When Douglass’s tour moves out of Dublin and heads to Cork, he begins to get a better picture of the damage that the potato blight will be causing in the countryside. In Cork he stays with the Jennings family, to whom Emily Ehrlich’s letter will be addressed nearly 75 years later. While he is there, Lily Duggan arrives. Inspired by Douglass’s description of life in America, she has walked from Dublin to catch a ship to New York. And Douglass begins to hear a word whispered which he has never heard associated with slavery in America. Cruelty, violence, abuse and fear are all part of the slave’s condition—famine famine is not.
The last man we meet is George Mitchell. It is 1998 and the retired senator from Maine has been sweet-talked by Bill Clinton into leaving his young bride and new- born son behind to referee the talks in Belfast that, it is hoped, will lead to the end of the sectarian violence that has plagued Ireland since the mid 1960s. Mitchell is bouncing around like a ping pong ball from New York to Belfast to London to Washington and back to New York on a weekly basis. But the end is in sight. A deadline has been set and Mitchell believes that if he and his staff can overcome their fatigue and maintain their patience, a positive outcome is within their grasp. While at a tennis match, he meets Lottie Ehrlich, now an old woman confined to a wheelchair. She gives him tips on his game and encouragement in his labours.
The second half of the book is the story of the women we were introduced to in the first half. McCann starts with Lily Duggan. It is 1863 and she is working at a Union army field hospital in Missouri. John Fitzpatrick, her husband, has long since vanished, leaving her alone to raise her son Thaddeus. At seventeen, Tad has enlisted and Lily has followed him into the war in the hope of keeping her eye on him.
When Tad is killed, Lily throws in her lot with a Norwegian ice farmer from Iowa. They have several children, but only one daughter: Emily. Years later, Lily hears Douglass speak at a rally in St. Louis for women’s right to vote.
Later we meet Emily and Lottie on board a ship heading to England to talk to Teddy Brown ten years after his journey with Alcock. Apologetically, Brown returns the letter Lottie had given him. In the excitement, he had forgotten to mail it. Lottie falls for the chauffeur the Royal Air Force has provided. She marries him and stays in Ireland, leaving her mother to return to Newfoundland alone.
The last two chapters are devoted to Lottie as an old woman and her daughter Hannah. Like her great grandmother before her, Hannah is fated to lose her teenage son to armed conflict. Her grandmother’s letter to the Jennings family leads Hannah on an adventurous journey as she endeavours to learn if it is indeed a valuable collector’s item. McCann closes the circle by providing Hannah with a black man to be her guide to Dublin.