“Quieter Moments at the Edge of History”: A Review of Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic

by Andrew Blackman

Andrew Blackman is a fiction writer living in Crete. He’s had two novels published in the U.K.: A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He’s also written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.

HarperCollins Canada
2 Bloor Street East, 20th Floor
Toronto, ON M4W 1A8

2013, 368 pp., $29.99, ISBN: 9781554689927

At first, it might not seem as if Frederick Douglass and U.S. Senator George Mitchell have much in common. But in his latest novel, TransAtlantic, Colum McCann constructs a dazzling story linking the two men by way of pioneering aviators Alcock and Brown and a large cast of other characters spread across Ireland, the United States, and Canada. This story, which spans three centuries and includes multiple Atlantic crossings, communicates some important truths about migration, freedom, and the way history is constructed.

The novel opens in 1919, with Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown on the outskirts of St John’s, Newfoundland, preparing to take off in their Vickers Vimy for the first ever flight across the Atlantic. Then it jumps back to 1845, where a 27-year-old Frederick Douglass is touring Ireland to gain support for the abolition of slavery, and then lurches forward to 1998 to follow George Mitchell around the halls of Stormont as he negotiates the final stages of the Good Friday Agreement to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

This is not a book, however, about the exploits of famous men. It’s a book about what lies behind those exploits—the secret doubts and fears, the everyday routines, and the conversations and relationships with people who don’t make it into the history books. In a PBS interview shortly after publication, McCann said, “What I’m interested in is how the small, anonymous moments can enter into the large narrative of the bigger, more public moments.” By exploring those moments, he hopes to create a texture around these historical figures, and produce a kind of “unlegislated history.”

“ … it’s not a tale of linear progress, but of successes and reversals and return journeys.”

For the most part, he is successful. Douglass and Mitchell, in particular, shed their public personas and are revealed as interesting, fully three-dimensional characters. We walk with Douglass through the famine-stricken streets of Dublin, seeing the ragged women, the darting rats, the welt-covered beggars, the bloated donkey carcass, the Liffey dimpled with rain. We understand why he carries with him two heavy iron barbells made from melted slave chains. He’s in a new land in which he’s no longer a slave and doesn’t have to fear being chased, whipped, or recaptured, and yet his work is to return to that fear and convey it to others. He lifts the barbells before each writing session, using them as a means of remembrance.

He wanted them to know what it might mean to be branded: for another man’s initials to be burned into your skin; to be yoked about the neck; to wear an iron bit at the mouth; to cross the water in a fever ship; to wake in another man’s field; to hear the jangle of the marketplace; to feel the lash of the cowhide; to have your ears cropped; to accept, to bend, to disappear.

Douglass becomes a celebrity in Dublin, giving speeches to large crowds and signing his books for admiring fans, and yet the whole experience is shot through with doubt and vulnerability. He knows the prejudices he is facing, how closely he’s being examined, and how quickly things could turn against him. Whenever he hears a piece of unfamiliar music or grapples with which word to choose, he is terrified of people seeing through him.

If he showed a chink, they might shine a light through, stun him, maybe even blind him. He could not allow for a single mistake.

George Mitchell, too, stops being a politician and becomes a 64-year-old man with a young wife and child, a man who changes diapers and plays tennis in Central Park and has the fleeting urge to stay in New York and let the peace process go on without him. Like Douglass, he is a man under pressure, and constantly on guard. But whereas Douglass is afraid of being seen through, Mitchell is afraid of letting slip some remark that will upset the delicate balance of peace. A relaxing break in a rural farmhouse is suddenly ruined for him when he sees a row of photographs in which a young man is present and then suddenly gone. In Northern Ireland, that usually meant involvement in the Troubles: the long-running, often violent conflict between those who wanted to stay part of the U.K. and those who favoured joining a united Ireland.

He felt a rod of fear stiffen his shoulders. Perhaps he had done the wrong thing entirely, walking through this farmhouse, taking off his shoes. Perhaps others would claim he had an allegiance. He wasn’t sure now how he could possibly extricate himself. All his time here, a series of careful choices. How simple it was to put a foot wrong.

The story of Alcock and Brown, however, doesn’t have the same intimacy. The pair retain the aura of famous men, the story of their flight told as if we are seeing it through the eyes of a distant observer. Perhaps this is intentional, because it turns out that the most important characters in the section are not the aviators themselves, but the two local reporters who are covering their historic take-off. But it makes the opening section drag in comparison to the others, as we hear more about the highly researched details of the flight preparations than we do about the motivations of the characters. They barely speak, either to each other or to anyone else.

But McCann is trying to do more, in any case, than simply humanize famous men. In the PBS interview, he also said:

Women, as we know, get short shrift in history. It’s largely been written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But really they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.

In TransAtlantic, it’s the lives of unknown, forgotten women that stitch together the stories of Frederick Douglass, Jack Alcock, Teddy Brown, and George Mitchell. The second section of the book is devoted to filling in the gaps, starting with the Dublin maid Lily Duggan, who was inspired by a brief meeting with Frederick Douglass to take control of her life and go to America. Her daughter and granddaughter are the two reporters who cover Alcock and Brown’s historic flight from Newfoundland in 1919. The granddaughter, Lottie, an old woman by 1998, meets George Mitchell at a tennis club and admonishes him on his backhand.

Lily’s story begins as a classic immigrant tale, the familiar narrative of the Atlantic as a border between the Old World and the New, of America as a land of opportunity. But things soon get more complicated.

“ Women, as we know, get short shrift in history.’ ”

As the story progresses through the generations, it’s not a tale of linear progress, but of successes and reversals and return journeys. Her daughter Emily finds opportunities strictly limited as a female journalist at the turn of the twentieth century, and has her career ruined when a male editor claims all her work as his own. The family heads back across the Atlantic, following the trajectory of Alcock and Brown, and settles in Ireland. The final section of the book, set in 2011, is mournful and elegiac. Lily’s great granddaughter lives alone in a drafty house on the edge of a lough, struggling to pay her bills, mourning her son who was shot in the Troubles, and gradually accepting the inevitability of foreclosure.

The story of Frederick Douglass also reverses the traditional narrative. For millions of Europeans through the centuries, heading west across the Atlantic held the promise of freedom and opportunity, but for enslaved Africans, it was the opposite. The Atlantic, for them, was the Middle Passage. Millions died on the journey across, and those who survived endured a lifetime of slavery. Frederick Douglass fled to Boston, but even there he was “chased down the street, beaten, spat upon.” He was still somebody’s property, and his master could reclaim him at any moment. Only by heading east across the Atlantic could he experience true freedom.

[Ireland] was a cold, grey country under a hat of rain, but he could take the middle of the footpath, or board a stagecoach, or hail a hansom without apology. There was poverty everywhere, yes, but still he would take the poverty of a free man. No whips. No chains. No branding marks.

Ultimately, of course, Douglass returned to the United States, and he also set in motion the westward journey of Lily Duggan. The Atlantic in this book is a porous border, the scene of multiple crossings and re-crossings. It serves not to divide Europe and the Americas but to link them, as the subsequent generations of Lily’s family string fragile threads across the ocean, forming a link between the lives of Frederick Douglass and George Mitchell.

McCann’s previous novel, the U.S. National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, had as its central image Philippe Petit’s famous 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This book has a different subject, but is still in its own way a risky high-wire act. The stories are so disparate that for most of the novel it seems impossible for them to be successfully drawn together. The success of TransAtlantic is in leaving the links between the stories tenuous enough to feel true, but also real enough to feel important. The past influences the present not directly, but through multiple untold stories.

“The Atlantic in this book is a porous border, the scene of multiple crossings and re-crossings. It serves not to divide Europe and the Americas but to link them.

It’s also immensely readable. McCann has an eye for the telling detail that will bring a scene to life. Even in the opening section, when a fact-laden passage about the fuel load of Alcock and Brown’s plane is threatening to become turgid, he pops it back to life by showing us the onlookers pinging the taut linen of the wings with their umbrellas, and the kids crayoning their names on the underside of the fuselage. The details accumulate in each section of the book, grounding us in each separate narrative and making them feel real, at least for a while, until we are whisked back across the Atlantic and across the centuries to start afresh somewhere else. The details also act as anchors between the different stories. Frederick Douglass’s barbells, for example, appear again as a collector’s item in 2011. Lottie plays tennis as a girl in Newfoundland in 1919, and meets George Mitchell on the tennis court as an old woman in 1998.

In the final section, told in the first person and titled “The Garden of Remembrance,” the descriptions of the house and the lough are layered with the narrator’s memories of her dead son, and there’s a sad kind of beauty on almost every page.

The rest of the cottage was built low to keep us humble. Rump-sprung chairs and faded upholstery. A smoke-charred fireplace. A formal bookcase of mahogany and glass. My son used to have to stoop through the doorways. The walls are built thick, but there’s a cold that enters the belly of the cottage and remains. All the doors have to be closed to seal the heat from the fire in the main room. Give me any sort of light: preferably tilleys, storm lanterns, the blackened glass of Victorian lamps.

Shells fall on the roof constantly from the birds overhead. There are times I feel I am living inside a percussion instrument.

One striking thing about TransAtlantic is how often the details of history become lost or irrelevant, at least when they don’t involve “great men.” For example, Lily Duggan’s daughter Emily gives a letter to Brown, asking him to take it on his transatlantic flight and deliver it to the person in Dublin who helped Lily get to America. He takes it, but forgets to deliver it. The unopened letter gets passed down through the generations, until finally in 2011 it’s opened, and means almost nothing to the people who read it. The people involved are long dead, and the details that gave the letter meaning have been lost to history. Frederick Douglass’s barbells, on the other hand, are subject to an “outrageous bid” by a collector, before ending up in a museum in Washington, D.C.

And yet this forgotten history is important. The details may have been lost, but the substance remains. It’s the sight of 90-year-old Lottie, first at the tennis club and then in the crowd outside Stormont with the other mourning relatives, which gives Mitchell the determination to see the peace process through to the end. It’s a forgotten, undocumented role, and perhaps peace would have happened without it, but McCann is suggesting that these small incidents, these “unlegislated histories” are important. The events of the present are influenced by a whole mass of forces from the past, some of which can be accurately mapped and some of which can’t. And as he has one of his characters say, on the penultimate page of the novel, “There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t in part, at least, addressed to the past.”


Andrew Blackman is a fiction writer living in Crete. He’s had two novels published in the U.K.: A Virtual Love and On the Holloway Road. He’s also written extensively for magazines and newspapers, and blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.