Monday, August 19, 2013

Across the western ocean


At first, TransAtlantic by Colum McCann reads like a book of unconnected historical stories - beautifully written, but seemingly having little to do with each other. But have patience: the deep and curious connections will be revealed.

Two traumatized World War I veterans, Teddie Brown and John Alcock, plan to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland. It's 1919, and the flight had never been made nonstop before. The first story tells of their preparations, the ordeal of the flight, and the letter they are given to take with them.

In the second story, we've gone back to 1845, and an escaped slave named Frederick Douglass tours Ireland to raise money for abolition. He loves the sensation of freedom Ireland gives him - slavery is illegal in Ireland, and he cannot be seized and returned to his owners here - but he also glimpses the fearsome famine that grips the countryside.

In the third story, the year is 1998. Senator George Mitchell has reluctantly left his wife and child in New York and gone to Belfast to try and establish some sort of peace protocol in violence-torn Northern Ireland.

These stories are all based on historical events, but they seem to have little in common, aside from the theme of crossing the Atlantic, from west to east, from North America to Ireland.

Then comes the second half of the book - the stories of the women behind the men, the wives, mothers, and daughters, the servants, the lovers, the chance acquaintances. Their relationships weave these different historical moments into a rich tapestry.

TransAtlantic is not a fast book, but it unfolds like a flower into something beautiful. It rewards your time.

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