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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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TransAtlantic
TransAtlantic
A Novel
by Colum McCann

Paperback (20 May 2014), 336 pages.
Publisher: Random House
ISBN-13: 9780812981926
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In the National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann thrilled readers with a marvelous high-wire act of fiction that The New York Times Book Review called "an emotional tour de force." Now McCann demonstrates once again why he is one of the most acclaimed and essential authors of his generation with a soaring novel that spans continents, leaps centuries, and unites a cast of deftly rendered characters, both real and imagined.

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.

Dublin, 1845 and '46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.

New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland's notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

The most mature work yet from an incomparable storyteller, TransAtlantic is a profound meditation on identity and history in a wide world that grows somehow smaller and more wondrous with each passing year.

1919
c l o u d s h a d o w

IT WAS A MODIFIED BOMBER. A VICKERS VIMY. ALL WOOD AND LINEN and wire. She was wide and lumbering, but Alcock still thought her a nippy little thing. He patted her each time he climbed onboard and slid into the cockpit beside Brown. One smooth motion of his body. Hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder bar, he could already feel himself aloft.

What he liked most of all was rising up over the clouds and then flying in clean sunlight. He could lean out over the edge and see the shadow shift on the whiteness below, expanding and contracting on the surface of the clouds.

Brown, the navigator, was more reserved—it embarrassed him to make such a fuss. He sat forward in the cockpit, keen on what clues the machine might give. He knew how to intuit the shape of the wind, yet he put his faith in what he could actually touch: the compasses, the charts, the spirit level tucked down at his feet.

IT WAS THAT time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.

Alcock had piloted air-service fighters. Small bombs fell away from the undercarriage of his plane. A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upwards into the night. He leaned out from his open cockpit and watched the mushroom of smoke rise below. His plane leveled out and turned towards home. At times like that, Alcock craved anonymity. He flew in the dark, his plane open to the stars. Then an airfield would appear below, the razor wire illuminated like the altar of a strange church.

Brown had flown reconnaissance. He had a knack for the mathematics of flight. He could turn any sky into a series of numbers. Even on the ground he went on calculating, figuring out new ways to guide his planes home.


BOTH MEN KNEW exactly what it meant to be shot down. The Turks caught Jack Alcock on a long-range bombing raid over Suvla Bay and pierced the plane with machine-gun fire, knocked off his port propeller. He and his two crewmen ditched at sea, swam to shore. They were marched naked to where the Turks had set up rows of little wooden cages for prisoners of war. Open to the weather. There was a Welshman beside him who had a map of the constellations, so Alcock practiced his navigation skills, stuck out under the nailheaded Turkish night: just one glance at the sky and he could tell exactly what time it was. Yet what Alcock wanted more than anything was to tinker with an engine. When he was moved to a detention camp in Kedos, he swapped his Red Cross chocolate for a dynamo, traded his shampoo for tractor parts, built a row of makeshift fans out of scrap wire, bamboo, bolts, batteries.

Teddy Brown, too, had become a prisoner of war, forced to land in France while out on photographic reconnaissance. A bullet shattered his leg. Another ruptured the fuel tank. On the way down he threw out his camera, tore up his charts, scattered the pieces. He and his pilot slid their B.E.2c into a muddy wheatfield, cut the engine, held their hands up. The enemy came running out of the forest to drag them from the wreck. Brown could smell petrol leaking from the tanks. One of the Krauts had a lit cigarette in his lips. Brown was known for his reserve. Excuse me, he called out, but the German kept coming forward, the cigarette flaring. Nein, nein. A little cloud of smoke came from the German's mouth. Brown's pilot finally lifted his arms and roared: For fucksake, stop!

The German paused in midstride, tilted his head back, paused, swallowed the burning cigarette, ran towards the airmen again. It was something that made Brown's son, Buster, laugh when he heard the story just before he, too, went to war, twenty years later. Excuse me. Nein, nein. As if the German had only the flap-end of his shirt sticking out, or had somehow neglected to tie his shoelace properly.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In this novel, Colum McCann writes about four men: Jack Alcock, Teddy Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Senator George Mitchell. Were you familiar with any or all of these figures before reading TransAtlantic? Did what you learn about them surprise you? Do you find their journeys thematically linked?
  2. As Alcock and Brown fly across the Atlantic they have several close calls, including a moment when their plane spins out of control and a rough landing, all in the fierce cold and damp. Do you think anyone could, nowadays, make the same sort of journey they did? Why or why not? What sorts of physical challenges remain for adventurers and explorers?
  3. Douglass forms relationships with several women in the novel: we see him write home to his wife, Anna, but he also indelibly shapes the maid Lily and becomes friends with Isabel Jennings. What do you think draws these very different people together? How do these small threads eventually create a tapestry?
  4. Why do you think Lily follows Douglass to America? What does she hope to find there? Does this novel confront the impossibility of the American dream?
  5. Book One is not chronological: after Alcock and Brown's flight in 1919, we travel back to Douglass's tour of Ireland in 1845, and then move forward once more to 1998 and Mitchell. How would your reading of the novel change if this section were differently arranged? What would happen to the novel if the sections concerning the women were woven directly into the stories of the men?
  6. In the third section of the book, McCann takes us into the mind of Senator George Mitchell during the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. What do you know about the Irish "Troubles"? How does Mitchell's story enrich or change what you already knew?
  7. The novel is structured so we meet the four men, seemingly unrelated, first—and then learn that women connected to all of them are multiple generations of one family. Why do you think McCann structures TransAtlantic in this way? What do the very male first half of the book and the very female second half tell us about men, women, and how we legislate history?
  8. Lily loses most of the men she loves—the father of her first son, Tad; her sons, Tad, Adam, and Benjamin; and her husband, Jon. What do you think gives her the strength to continue on and become a successful merchant? Do you admire her? What does this say about the role of women in history?
  9. In the course of TransAtlantic we see many technologies—to which we're well accustomed today—at the moments they were still new, including airplanes, cameras, and automobiles. What does the novel tell us about these devices and how they bring people together (and tear people apart)?
  10. There are two civil wars in the novel: the American Civil War, in which Lily loses her son, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which takes Lottie's grandson, Hannah's son. What does TransAtlantic show us about war? Who are its victims?
  11. Why do you think Hannah leaves the letter behind with her hosts?
  12. Some of the characters in the novel are based on real figures; others are entirely fictional. Is it easy to tell the two apart? How do these sets of characters illuminate one another? McCann has said in interviews that "the real is often imagined," and "the imagined is often real." What do you think he means by this?
  13. The novel begins with an Eduardo Galeano quote that ends, "the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is." Why do you think McCann chose to open TransAtlantic this way? How do you see the stories in the novel—"the time that was"—relating to today, "the time that is"?
  14. As its title suggests, TransAtlantic is about Ireland and North America, and the ideas and people that cross between the two. What do you feel makes this international relationship special? What draws families and individuals back and forth between these countries?
  15. What is the function of the Prologue of the novel, set in 2012? How does it frame the novel? How does it tie in with the last line of the book? What is McCann suggesting about the circularity of human experience?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

TransAtlantic is a profound meditation on identity and history in a wide world that grows somehow smaller and more wondrous with each passing year.

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It might be tempting to interpret Colum McCann's brilliant novel, TransAtlantic, as a literary exercise in pointillism. After all, he presents us with a series of "dots" which slowly click into place and paint, when we take a step back, one breathtaking picture. But McCann, the winner of the National Book Award for his previous book, Let the Great World Spin, goes one step beyond. The "dots" here are not fuzzy and loosely pixelated. Instead each literary vignette is so precisely painted that there's beauty both when the camera zooms in and out.

Three historical events, transatlantic crossings, create the scaffolding for the story: Frederick Douglass visits Ireland in 1845, at the start of the potato famine and is impressed by Irish emancipator Daniel O'Connell; in 1919, aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown make history as they try to be the first people to fly nonstop across the Atlantic; and in 1998, Sen. George Mitchell departs for Ireland for one last attempt at peace talks, what would eventually come to be known as the Good Friday agreement.

Wrapped around these historical events are the stories of four generations of women: Lily Duggan, an Irish Catholic woman who is enslaved and shipped to America where she later settles as a free woman; her daughter, Lottie Ehlrich; Lottie's daughter, Emily and finally Emily's daughter, Hannah Carson. Each of these women will have "crossings" of their own (transatlantic or not) and move back and forth between Ireland and North America always redefining the concept of home.

TransAtlantic starts with the story of Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown attempting their first flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland. At this time, Lottie Ehlrich and her daughter, Emily, are a mother-daughter journalist-photographer team set up in the same hotel and intent on capturing every detail of the historic flight. Shortly before Brown leaves, Emily hands him a letter to mail once he lands in Ireland. It is addressed: "The Jennings Family, 9 Brown Street, Cork." That letter never quite reaches its intended destination but is instead passed on from daughter to daughter through the generations, unopened. "I admit that I have sat at the kitchen table, looking out over the lough, and have rubbed the edges on the envelope and held it in the palm of my hand to try to divine what the contents might be, but, just as we are knotted by wars, so mystery holds us together," says the last daughter, Hannah. This letter, a mysterious family heirloom that holds so much intrigue and value for successive generations, also serves to bind the story together.

It is not quite right to call the various chapters "stories" - instead they are snapshots from different years and different lives and, just as he did in Let the Great World Spin, McCann skillfully paints them all together on one sprawling canvas. In the hands of a less able writer, these interweavings, the connections between people and places, might seem forced, but they aren't so here.

An Irish native himself, McCann understands the bittersweet nostalgia that accompanies immigration. TransAtlantic captures the immigrant sense of displacement especially well. At one point in the novel, Lily's husband, Jon Ehlrich, brings her a beautiful painting of Ireland as a special present. The beauty represented in the painting takes Lily aback, she only knew poverty in her native country, "No part of Ireland had ever vaguely resembled the canvas Jon Ehlrich had brought home," McCann writes. She had been sent to work as a maid. "Hers had been a life of basements, of rat droppings, of inner staircases, of soup ladles. A half-day off a week. Sloshing through the wet dark streets. To buy tobacco. The only relief."

There are many novels out there - large tomes, more than 400 pages long - that bandy about the word "saga," which brings to mind long descriptions and flowery sentences. McCann proves you don't need either to create a sweeping story, but what you do need is vision. Always one for economy of writing, he goes a step further with TransAtlantic. He wields his pen like a scalpel trimming every extra word, every extra incident out. Some might even call the first chapter choppy but I found it to be an accurate reflection of the flight ahead for the two aviators. "What was a life anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other," McCann writes. He is a master at knowing just which "small shelves of incident" to shine a spotlight on and with his marvelous, measured writing he allows the reader to make wondrous discoveries as we piece the connections together.

McCann has had me hooked me on his writing since his novel Dancer. He has proven time and again that he is a powerhouse among contemporary fiction writers. He understands that what binds humanity together are not broad, panoramic moments but the smaller-scale happenings that bring those large historical events home to the everyday person. "The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again," McCann writes, "We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves." By mining these intersections with infinite grace and precision, McCann has created a stunning masterpiece. TransAtlantic is an absolute tour-de-force. If you can read only one book this year, this should be it.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A beautifully written novel, an experience to savor.

Publishers Weekly
A beautiful writer . . . This is what interests McCann: lives made amid and despite violence; the hidden braids of places, times, and people; the way the old days ‘arrive back in the oddest ways.’

Author Blurb Emma Donoghue
his novel is beautifully hypnotic in its movements, from the grand (between two continents, across three centuries) to the most subtle. Silkily threading together public events and private feelings, TransAtlantic says no to death with every line.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Diane S.
Transatlantic
Trite but true, all good things must come to an end. I so wanted to keep reading the wonderful prose, the settings that let one think they are part of the story, and the wonderful characters that this novel contains. McCann has the knack of illuminating the everyday things of a person's life, hidden pride, glowing praise, love for country family and children. Everyday items, inconsequential things assume a meaning that often in apparent only in hindsight. Taking real historical characters and mixing them with characters of his own invention, and making the story realistic takes a very great talent. Covering the pure amount of history in a little more than 250 pgs. fills one with wonder. It is very important to pay attention to the prologue, also the small events that keep reappearing in different places. The first part of the book is not linear, the second part covers some wonderfully strong woman characters, and like a master weaver he threads them throughout history and combines them to make a cohesive and finished piece. It is also a homage to Ireland, their fight and quest for freedom, intermingled with America and slavery. This is a book that contain so many wonderful quotes one could quote indefinitely, but this is one of my favorites and a good way to end this review. "There isn't a story in the world that isn't in part at least, addressed to the past. And so it goes.

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Douglass and O'Connell: An Unlikely Friendship

One of the historical events that frames TransAtlantic is Frederick Douglass's visit to Ireland. Douglass was an escaped slave and later became a champion abolitionist. In late 1845, he visited Ireland as part of a two-year lecture tour through Ireland, Scotland and England. Douglass had escaped seven years earlier and had published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. As Douglass traveled through Ireland, through Belfast, Cork and Dublin, he was greeted enthusiastically.

Daniel O'ConnellIt was in Ireland that he met Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), who brought an important Catholic voice to the Irish opposition to slavery. Even though the two shared the stage only very briefly, during a September 1845 rally in Dublin, the meeting would serve as inspiration for Douglass who is said to have remarked that O'Connell's "voice made American slavery shake to its center." That visit helped Douglass frame the contagion of slavery against a larger point of reference, as a global struggle for equality. It is important to note that slaves shipped to English colonies were not solely from Africa, many Irish were enslaved and shipped to the New World as well.

Douglass proved to be popular in Ireland despite his fascination for all things English - including their style of clothing and English authors such as Charles Dickens. Interestingly enough, when Douglass visited Ireland, the potato famine was just beginning to take root and over many subsequent years, would drive millions to migrate to the United States. Douglass's warm reception in Ireland by Irish nationalists, especially, stands in contrast to the attitudes of Irish Americans back home who weren't very sympathetic to the cause of slavery eradication*.

Frederick DouglassO'Connell died less than two years after Douglass's visit. Arguably his greatest impact on Douglass would be his belief in Ireland's destiny as part of Great Britain, where rule of law rather than revolution would prevail. Douglass translated this vision to the United States believing that a continued union between the North and the South would lead to the greatest chance at emancipation from slavery. Until then, Douglass's mentor, William Llyod Garrison had brought up the possibility of the North possibly opting out of the union if the slave states of the South did not want to abolish slavery. But O'Connell's influence encouraged Douglass to pursue policies of emancipation while keeping the union intact.

When President Barack Obama visited Ireland a few years ago, he reflected on the historic partnership:

"Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and our great abolitionist, forged an unlikely friendship...with [Ireland's] great liberator, Daniel O'Connell. His time [in Ireland], Frederick Douglass said, defined him not as a color but as a man. And it strengthened the non-violent campaign he would return [to America] to wage.

For his part, Douglass drew inspiration from the Irishman's courage and intelligence, ultimately modeling his own struggle for justice on O'Connell's belief that change could be achieved peacefully through rule of law ... the two men shared a universal desire for freedom - one that cannot be contained by language or culture or even the span of an ocean."

These days, the Frederick Douglass/Daniel O'Connell project with offices in Ireland and Washington D.C. honors the memories of these two men and works to strengthen the voices of African and Irish diaspora in the United States as well as fight injustice around the world. A statue of Frederick Douglass, nearly nine feet tall, is on display at the Helix Theater in Dublin City University.


*According to BookBrowse visitor Carol Goonan who, critical of our interpretation of events, wrote to us in June 2014: "Over 150,000 Irish immigrants fought in the Union army as volunteers. One Irish regiment sustained 41 losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Reasons for the lack of involvement of Irish immigrants in the Abolition movement prior to the war can be found in the fact that the movement was largely Protestant, Anglo-Saxon, and anti-Catholic. Additionally the movement was intrinsically bound up with the Temperance movement, a cause antithetical to the Irish (and German) immigrants. Lastly, Northern employers used Black labor as strikebreakers in an effort to control Irish laborers' demands for better pay and working conditions."

By Poornima Apte

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