Colum McCann


Colum McCann

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TransAtlantic Summary

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TransAtlantic is a novel by Irish author Colum McCann, and was published in 2013. McCann’s previous work, Let The Great World Spin, was given the National Book Award. TransAtlantic was a New York Times Bestseller; it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and named one of the best books of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews. The novel describes three famous transatlantic crossings from history—that of Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Senator George Mitchell—interweaving these real-life events with the stories of fictional women over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Given that McCann was born in Dublin and now lives in New York, it is likely that his own background drew him to explore moments in which Irish and American history converged.

In the 1840s, at the beginning of the Irish Potato famine, American orator, statesman, and freedman Frederick Douglass toured Ireland. At the chronological beginning of the story, Lily Duggan, an Irish maid in a Quaker household Douglass visits, is moved by his ideas about freedom and equality. After Douglass moves on to stay in a home in a far-off coastal town, Lily decides to immigrate to the United States. Before she boards the boat to the states, Lily walks many miles to find Douglass, hoping to speak with him before she leaves. They have an awkward encounter when Douglass fails to recognize her and she finds that she is not sure what she is hoping to get out of the discussion and doesn’t know what to say. They part ways and Lily leaves for America as planned.

In the US, Lily has a brief relationship that results in a pregnancy. She gives birth to a son who grows up around the time the Civil War breaks out and enlists in the Union army. Lily becomes a nurse and works in a field hospital. She witnesses her son’s dead body being brought off the battlefield for burial after he is killed in combat. Later, Lily marries Jon Ehrlich, an ice delivery man. The couple have four children; however, Jon and two of their three sons are ultimately killed in an accident. Lily builds a comfortable life for herself, her remaining son, and her daughter Emily. As Emily grows up, she develops a love of reading and dreams of someday becoming a journalist. Emily begins a relationship with a newspaper editor that results in the birth of their daughter, Lottie.

Emily moves away with her daughter and begins a successful writing career. Lottie hones her own craft as a photographer. The pair team up to cover the 1919 attempt by British aviators John Alcock and Teddy Brown to make the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Emily gives Alcock a thank you note she has written to a Isabelle Jennings, a woman she knows in Ireland, and asks him to mail it for her when he reaches his destination. Alcock agrees, but admits in a follow-up interview for the ten-year anniversary of the successful flight that he forgot to mail the letter. Alcock returns the letter to Emily unopened.

Lottie eventually marries and has a family. Although the family isn’t as wealthy as they once were, Lottie is content in her life. Lottie’s daughter, Hannah, has a son named Thomas who has a gentle disposition and prefers not to join the other men when they go duck hunting near the family’s cottage. One day, during his sophomore year of college, Thomas agrees to join in on the hunt and is killed by soldiers while out placing decoys before dawn. In 1998, Irish-American senator, George Mitchell, leaves the states for Belfast to lead peace talks related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The conflict’s end coincides with Lottie finding peace in the wake of Thomas’ death.

Hannah, however, never recovers from her grief over her son’s death. She takes up residence at the family’s cottage and struggles to pay off the family’s debts. She considers auctioning off Emily’s letter, thinking it might be worth something because it made the historic transatlantic flight. However, she finds that, because it cannot be authenticated, the letter is virtually worthless. Hannah decides to open the letter and finds that it is a very basic thank-you note that would be of very little interest to potential buyers. At the close of the novel, Hannah prepares to sell the cottage and abandon her family home.

TransAtlantic received largely positive critical response. Oprah Magazine describes the book as “McCann’s most penetrating novel yet” and Esquire wrote that “the intricate connections [McCann] has crafted between the stories of his women and our men [seem] written in air, in water, and-- given that his subject is the confluence of Irish and American history-- in blood.”
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