Friday, September 27, 2013

Transatlantic by Colum McCann


In TRANSATLANTIC,  prize-winning author Colum McCann combines three historical events, all involving the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Ireland:  the lecture tour of escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, in 1845, just at the onset of the potato famine; the first non-stop transatlantic flight made in 1919 by John Alcock and Arthur Brown; and the multiple crossings made by former Senator George Mitchell in his efforts to broker the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement which ended “The Troubles,” a three-decades long period of conflict between Nationalists (Catholics) and Unionists (Protestants).
These three events are bridged by a succession of women, the first of whom, Lily Duggan, crosses the ocean in the other direction, leaving Ireland for America to escape poverty and famine. Life is not much easier in America, but Lily prospers. After serving as a washerwoman and nurse in Civil War battlefield hospitals, she marries and raises a family. Her daughter, Emily, is a bookish girl who eventually becomes a journalist and covers the story of Alcock and Brown’s take-off from Newfoundland. Emily and her daughter, Lottie, cross to Ireland by ship where Lottie marries and has her own daughter, Hannah. Together Lottie and Hannah bear the personal suffering brought on by “The Troubles,” and then Hannah alone must deal with the consequences of the financial collapse of 2008.

The progress made in 150 years can be astounding. People regularly travel by plane across the Atlantic Ocean. Political and religious violence ceases to terrorize the citizens of the British Isles. And in 2008, another black American visits Ireland, this time rather than an escaped slave he is the President of the United States. The abolition of slavery, the development of intercontinental flight, a treaty to end a long, violent struggle are important developments in the course of history.  And, inevitably, the course of history affects the lives of the ordinary people of the world.