World War I ends. Pilot Jack Alcock and navigator Teddy Brown settle into the cockpit of a lumbering Vickers Vimy, a modified bomber, bent on winning Lord Northcliffe’s reward for flying the ocean in one stretch. The engine sputters alive. At the last minute, a woman leans into the plane with a single letter; please deliver this when you reach Ireland. A hand takes the letter and tucks it inside. The Vimy climbs into the watery morning light.
Eschewing linear tale-telling , Colum McCann’s latest endeavor Transatlantic, moves back and forth across the great ocean pond, hopscotching through time, sliding between generations, lacing together history and war, heartbreak and triumph from Newfoundland to New York to Kansas and Ireland.
Layers of drama populate this epic, moving the reader from the grueling 1919 Atlantic crossing backward to 1845 and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass struggling for British support for Negroes in North America; but are the Irish peasants any better off? A jump forward to 1998 and Special Presidential Envoy George Mitchell as he leaves behind a wife and new baby while cobbling a Belfast truce during the Irish-English ‘Troubles.” Return to 1919 and the Vickers Vimy misjudges its landing, setting down in an Irish bog.
Finally, it is class-bound Irish housemaid Lily Dugan and her descendents that tie the common knot. Lily watches various leaders strut their hour with Douglass. She questions the rigid class structure, throws off her apron, sets out for Nova Scotia, and spawns her amazons. Eventually her path again intersects that of Douglass, now sunken and disheartened, the impotent darling of the liberal set. She serves as witness to the struggle for freedom as it morphs into the great upheaval of the American Civil War where wagon wheels, black with blood, turn and mire in mud, mimicking the circle of life. Lily’s daughter and later granddaughter engage in their own struggle for working rights post each sequential war.
Comes 2012 and a great-granddaughter listens to the pinging of oysters dropped by sea gulls on her cottage roof. The sound rattles across time.
McCann’s prose by turn sings, conjures up images seen with the heart, or sends chills of dread along the reader’s eyeball. McCann the author is a master of the written word, allowing his prose to materialize into images and become poetry. McCann the storyteller writes in fits and starts, pulls the reader into the complexity of a life before abruptly changing time and direction. His one word sentences and choppy organization demand the reader render precise attention to detail and precedent else lose the thin thread weaving these disparate sections into a whole.
And, the letter? What of the letter given with such urgency to the Vimy pilot? Despite the uneven tale, the back and forth in time, the incomplete sentences, Transatlantic is nonetheless lyrical, compelling and, in the end, masterful. It’s available at the Fayetteville Public Library for check-out.
Nancy Hartney, Fayetteville Public Library Reference Librarian, is the author of Washed in the Water: Tales from the South and a frequent contributor to regional anthologies and western collections.