Sunday, July 21, 2019

Trans Atlantic by Colum McCann

Source of book: I own this. 

Every year, for the last quite a few, I have participated in a 10 kilometer run, the annual Rock to Pier race. My wife started it, the same way she got me into running as an adult. (I ran a bit as a teen, but not competitively.) Namely, she started doing it, and encouraged me to join in. Rock to Pier is run from Morro Rock (at Morro Bay, California) to Cayucos Pier, roughly 6.2 miles away. On the beach, at low tide, early in the morning. In other words, as fun of a run as you will find. The fact that they run it in July, when it is hot as Hades in Bakersfield, but is usually a cloudy 55 at race time in Morro Bay is a real bonus. All this to say that this weekend was spent at the beach. Which means I needed a beach read. 

I haven’t always been consistent in what I read at the beach. Some years, I have just brought whatever I was already reading. Last year, I did it right, and brought a P. G. Wodehouse book (Cocktail Time) - which is ALWAYS a good choice for light beach reading. Another year, I brought a Camus, which was perhaps a bit heavy for the occasion. Sometimes, my book is too big for a single weekend, as in the case when I started The Irregulars, about Roald Dahl’s spy work. 

Anyway, this time, I selected as my beach read a book that I happened to pick up used, by an author I enjoyed last time. (Definitely consider reading Let the Great World Spin. It is excellent.) This book is shorter, and rather different, but it showcases McCann’s wonderful writing and creative conceptualization. 

Colum McCann was born and grew up in Ireland, but immigrated to the United States, and has lived in New York for most of his career. You can tell that his heart is in both places, though, the country of his origin, and his adopted country. While Let the Great World Spin has an Irish connection, Trans Atlantic is explicitly about the connections between the two worlds. The first half of the book tells of three historical crossings between North America and Ireland, each of which had profound consequences for history. These three narratives are told from the point of view of three historical characters - with a bit of artistic license. The second half of the book is purely fictional, telling of four generations of women and their connections to Ireland and the New World. These narratives intersect with the historical narratives, although this doesn’t become clear until later in the book. In this sense, I spent the first half of the book trying to figure out how McCann was going to make sense of all the seemingly unconnected stories. I am not entirely sure he pulled off what he was intending, but I’m also not sure it matters. The book was thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating throughout, whether or not it truly gelled as a whole. McCann is a skilled writer, and a compelling storyteller, and that carries the book. 

McCann selected three historical events, all of which are - in my opinion - underrated and underappreciated. I suspect that McCann thought so too - and his short interview at the end of the paperback edition I own supports that surmise. 

The first in the book (although chronologically second) is the first transatlantic non-stop aircraft flight. And NO, IT WAS NOT LINDBERGH! (Sorry, I’m a bit of an airplane buff - my dad worked in aviation most of my childhood in addition to flying as an amateur pilot.) Lindburgh gets credit mostly because he - and his aircraft - were photogenic. And his kid was kidnapped and murdered. He was, to be sure, the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, but he did so a full EIGHT YEARS after Alcock and Brown did so - and several others made the trip in various aircraft and airships. (Also often lost to memory is that Lindbergh was an open Nazi, who was rebuked by FDR for his pro-Nazi propaganda efforts.) Anyway, Alcock and Brown made the crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, winning the prize for the first successful effort, and also bringing the first airmail from North America to Europe. 

The second crossing in the book is the first chronologically: the trip that Frederick Douglass made to Ireland to lecture and gather support for abolition. In 1938, the enslaved Douglass escaped and fled to New York, where he became a free man. Well, sort of. He was still, legally, a slave in the South. He was also vulnerable to being captured by slave catchers from the South working in the North - his life literally depended on his being able to escape from those who would enslave him again. Seven years later, in 1845, he would travel to Ireland and England to lecture. His letters reveal the sense of profound relief he felt on setting foot in Ireland, where he was legally a free man. McCann describes the tour of Ireland from the point of view of Douglass. While he does draw on the letters Douglass himself wrote, he also is clear that the book is fiction, and the individual incidents are not historical. This section of the book is also fantastic, in my view. Douglass arrived during the Potato Famine, and got to see first hand the crushing poverty and starvation. And, as McCann points out, the famine was far more complicated than just a potato blight. During the famine, Ireland literally produced enough food to feed twice its population. But the food was exported, leaving the locals to starve. Factors in this were the centuries-long oppression of Ireland by England. English landlords owned much of the land - even though they lived back in England. The food was exported for a profit (to the landlords, not the tenants) to feed England’s livestock, colonial armies, and territories. Laissez-faire economic policies allowed the wealthy to seek profits literally at the expense of Irish lives, and caused food prices to soar beyond the ability of the working poor - tenants of the gentry - to pay. A million died, and a million more emigrated - reducing Ireland’s population by 25%. The Famine stands as a sobering example of how unregulated capitalism can fail vulnerable people, while enriching the wealthy. It literally killed the most people in Europe in the 19th Century other than the Napoleonic Wars. The Famine also led to mass migration to the United States, causing the first major immigration panic (very similar to that of today.) 

The third historical crossing that McCann uses in the book is one which occurred during my lifetime. I confess, it didn’t really mean much to me at the time, mostly because its significance wouldn’t become apparent until years - decades - later. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an unprecedented peace to Ireland, has turned out, in retrospect, to have been one of the great triumphs of diplomacy of the 20th Century. While many deserve credit for making it happen, Senator George Mitchell was a key figure, chairing the talks, and making numerous trips across the Atlantic to facilitate the peace process. McCann chooses to tell the story of the final week of that negotiation from the perspective of Mitchell. 

A bit of my own experience here. I grew up during the Troubles. They were a constant background during my entire minority. They also served as the sole remaining example of Catholic/Protestant warfare. And also a graphic example of the fact that no conflict is either purely religious. Politics and religion are always intertwined, and the Irish Troubles were as much about hundreds of years of oppression and abuse by England and the tension between wealthy Brits who plundered Ireland as about any doctrinal differences. In fact, I suspect most of those involved at the street level could have really told you any meaningful differences in doctrine. It was always us versus them and hate and history and politics. In my late teens, I read a few early Tom Clancy books. (Before he became a brand…) One of those was Patriot Games, about the Irish conflict. It was the start, for me, of learning nuance in political/religious conflict, and, in my opinion, it is the best written of Clancy’s books. Also, during the time of the agreements, I discovered (after a childhood of hostility toward secular music) U2, and their refreshingly Christian take on violence and conflict. 

After these three historical episodes, McCann turns to the lives of four generations of women who come into the other stories. It starts with Lily, a servant girl in an Irish household (with a rather dark past), who decides, inspired by her meeting with Douglass, to take a boat to America. Once she arrives, she finds (like most Irish immigrants) that she is viewed as a “white n----r,” and less than the “native” white population. She has a child out of wedlock, he is killed in the Civil War, and she ends up marrying a Norweigian immigrant and having a family with him. Her daughter, Emily, becomes a journalist, despite the sexism of the times. (She ends up being forced into an affair with a married man to get her articles published, only for him to claim he wrote all her stuff.) With a daughter by this creep, she flees to Canada, and establishes her own career. She is there when Alcock and Brown take off on their historic flight, and her teenage daughter, Lottie, takes pictures. Later, Lottie meets an Irishman when they travel to interview Brown, and she marries him, settling in Ireland. An elderly Lottie later meets Mitchell at a tennis match. Lottie’s daughter Hannah completes the story, telling of her son’s death at the hands of some group or another during the Troubles, and her eventual loss of the family property due to debt and the changing of the times. 

The point of the book is definitely not the plot. I don’t feel I am giving away any spoilers, because there are no real surprises in that sense. The history is easy enough to know, and the specifics of the women’s stories are more about the psychology than the incidents. McCann emphasizes the question of belonging. Is Lily Irish, or is she American? And what does that even mean? Is she Catholic, Atheist, or Protestant? And what is the meaning of that for her anyway? And, for that matter, where is the meaning of her life: her mother forced into prostitution, her abandonment by the father of her child, the death of her husband in an accident, her success in a man’s world. Emily, likewise, must find her place. She leaves the United States for Canada, just as she leaves the rural Midwest for the big city. When her daughter remains in Ireland, while she returns, who is she? Lottie too has her questions. She chooses Ireland, but will always be “the American.” Of the four, Hannah is the least conflicted internally - she is of her land. But she is losing that land, and that connection. Where will she go? That question is left unanswered, but it is hinted that she may make the move back to North America and take her chances in her old age. 

This is where I must say that I really love McCann’s writing. His descriptions are economical yet evocative. In both of his books, I found even the minor characters to be intriguing, human, and well drawn. He rarely dwells on the successful sorts, but gives a human look to those who struggle. For this reason, his descriptions of both urban Dublin and rural Ireland, both with crushing poverty and desperation, are shockingly real. The little details, the chance conversation, the smells: it comes to life with his prose. 

On a related note, McCann has an eye for those who truly live their religion. The radical priest in Let the Great World Spin is one of the most memorable characters I can think of, to be sure. But in this book, the Quakers and the devout Irish Catholics (not the powerful, but the kind) are drawn with a nuance - and they become perhaps the most inspirational characters in the book. As McCann notes, it is those who dwell on the outskirts of society for various reasons, who understand empathy and human decency. The ones not quite accepted by the mainstream, the dissenters, those who marry outside race and class, those motivated by a love for neighbor and an abhorrence of oppressive hierarchies. 

This may all sound more serious and dark than the book is. It actually is a good beach or summer read, with a lot of optimism mixed with the realities of human nature. McCann has a knack for writing literary fiction that becomes a page turner because of character and story, not a thriller plot. You can’t wait to find out what happens not because it is a mystery or action adventure (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but because you care about the characters and want to find out how their lives turn out. 

I’ll end with the ending line in the book, which I love:

We have to admire the world for not ending on us. 

McCann has a knack for the final line. Let the Great World Spin ends with “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” It is this weird optimism, in the face of tragedy and hardship, that characterizes McCann’s writing. Life is hard, and often tragic. But it is, in its own way, beautiful, and the very fact that life goes on is admirable.  

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