Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion. These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.
This novel open in 2012 but before the final page ends up spanning two continents and three centuries. Though considered a complete novel, TransAtlantic ends up having more the feel of interconnected short stories, the first being of two former WW1 pilots, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, in Newfoundland in 1919, who are attempting the first nonstop transatlantic flight after modifying an old bomber plane.
Days of welding, soldering, sanding, stitching. The bomb bays were replaced by extra petrol tanks. That's what pleased Brown the most. They were using the bomber in a brand-new way: taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.
Their destination: Ireland. The project is riddled with setbacks. Just the attempt to fly from London -- when they're SO close to the finish line! -- to Clifden, Ireland causes the plane to basically crumble apart at times, nearly killing them more than once!
From there, the story stays in Ireland but jumps back to the year 1845. Former slave / abolitionist Frederick Douglass is visiting Dublin while on a European tour to promote his memoirs (and thereby his abolitionist message). It is during this time that author Colum McCann paints a picture of what the era of the potato famine might have looked like to someone who had likewise known extreme hardships such as Douglass.
Douglass writes to wife Anna about his impressions of Ireland and its people, initially noting that he finds himself quite at ease, as the people are incredibly friendly and respectful, not an n-word hurled at him once. That, the reader will find, is short-lived. Douglass starts doing joint speaking engagements with "The Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell. People start calling Douglass "the black O'Connell". As the tour continues, Douglass starts to notice his own publisher (international, that is), Webb, treats him more and more like a specimen or a roadshow attraction. Webb becomes noticeably more stingy with covering Douglass' travel expenses. That slur usage Douglass thought was absent in Ireland ends up rearing its head in Cork as Douglass is simply walking down a street one day. It is during this time that author McCann also works in the storyline of Douglass making plans on how to officially negotiate his freedom while in England.
Douglass (at least McCann's portrayal of him) does describe a moment of PTSD while being fitted for a suit while overseas, a moment in the experience throwing him back to his days as a slave.
The reader is also given a more modern story, comparatively, involving Irish-American senator George Mitchell, based in NYC, who heads to Belfast in 1998 to try to help promote peace talks in Northern Ireland. (Colum McCann himself, per his author blurb, was born in Dublin but now lives in NYC). When it came to this portion of the book, the bits about the senator being so in love with his wife were very sweet but overall I found myself a bit bored by his storyline.
Have I mentioned how much this book jumps back and forth between all these different eras? Yeah, if you like your fiction strictly chronological, TransAtlantic might prove to be a challenge for you. Comfortable in that 1990s setting? Too bad! McCann will slingshot you over to Civil War era and back again. A heads up regarding that, if you are a sensitive reader: much of this book is pretty tame (low violence factor), but the Civil War portions do contain some crude, graphic descriptions that may possibly turn your stomach.
Part of what kept me reading was trying to figure out how all these characters were connected ... I assumed there must be at least some link, even a thin one... it wasn't always immediately evident what those connections were. But in the case of Douglass's story, there was a character there that comes back around years later and links stuff up for the reader in Part 2. This character's story, with her connection to Douglass... in a way it saddened me, but there was something there that leaves a feeling of optimism for the future.
In general, the plots going on within the various storylines were mildly interesting, but nothing really deeply hooked me as a reader. Also, the jumping around seemed to lack finesse, instead giving me a bit of a headache trying to keep up and make sense of all the details being tossed about.
* In his acknowledgements section, Colum McCann gives a shout-out to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as part of the "TransAtlantic Crew"... makes me wonder if a movie adaptation was ever in the works? I can't find evidence of this anywhere online... later on he also gives nods to fellow writers Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) and Wendell Berry.