Summary and book reviews of TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic

A Novel

by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Book Summary

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.

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...

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,...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

McCann had me hooked me on his writing from his novel Dancer on. 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...TransAtlantic is an absolute tour-de-force. If you can read only one book this year, this should be it.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review (906 words).

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Media Reviews

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.

Reader Reviews

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 ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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