August 27

On Homesickness and Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic

Most of the time, there is a veritable ocean of territory between where I am now and my childhood home. I am often struck by homesickness, a tilt in my gut. I strain to see snow and evergreen but come up against moss and magnolia instead. Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic was the last book I picked up at the end of the summer after all my visiting was behind me and I settled, once again, into an ordinary life far from the home of my birth. McCann’s novel follows that movement between old homeland and new. In these pages, he charts an indelible link from Ireland to America and back again.

I find it difficult to express how compelling this novel is. We are driven through a variety of circumstances as McCann chronicles three notable trips across the Atlantic to Ireland and their generational fallout. The book is not only meticulously researched but, more importantly, McCann manages to grasp the push and pull within the traveler who often feels more than one emotion at once. (This might be what people mean by that elusive quality we call “depth.”) McCann honors each major character with his or her own section, giving us a chance to follow them on their separate leg within this larger narrative arc. Book One includes two British airmen, Alcock and Brown, who completed the first transatlantic flight from Canada to Ireland in 1919; former slave Frederick Douglass’ tour of Ireland in 1845 and ‘46 as he drummed up support for the abolitionist movement; and Senator George Mitchell’s trip to Northern Ireland in 1998 as a key broker of the Good Friday Agreement. Each man suffers from a series of disorientations – the clouds could disguise the ocean, and Republican, Unionist, Irishman, and Briton could easily be mistaken for friends or enemies. While they orient themselves, these visitors also become acquainted with the women who shape Book Two and Book Three: an intrepid reporter and her photographer-daughter; a servant; an old woman who in her younger days played a good game of tennis; and her daughter who is left to live with the remnants of the past (both good and bad).

The men get the headlines, but it’s the women who anchor the novel. This is its beating heart: “It was my grandmother Emily Ehrlich who wrote the letter, my own mother who brokered its passage, but it began with her mother, Lily Duggan, if anything truly begins at all. She was an immigrant maid from Dublin who moved to Northern Missouri where she married a man who cut and preserved ice.” I have walked across a frozen lake and heard the low sonic pulse and thrum of the ice flexing and settling. It has always seemed a living thing, and yet it never occurred to me that not long ago it was farmed. Lily Duggan, a woman who escapes famine in Ireland, learns what it is to harvest the cold in nineteenth-century Missouri. Lily looms large in my memory (partial as I am to the snow), though hers is only one part in a larger company of seven. While the men of McCann’s TransAtlantic are aware of the way their actions could make history, the women live it. They safeguard their connection to their family and their homes even as they attempt to let the past, at last, rest. A yearning sustains each character – proof of a bond with a loved one or a loved place – in the face of violence and loss and separation. Read this book. It will stay with you, wherever you happen to travel.

(And, Mom and Dad, I love you. I miss you. I’ll call again soon.)