Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Let the great plane fly

Book: Transatlantic
Author: Colum McCann
Published: 2013 (Thorndike)

I met Colum McCann in person when he did a reading at the college I live about two spits away from and I hadn't read any of his work then yet but now I have, FINALLY, and I put that all in caps because it turns out well.

 Let the Great World Spin was my first go-round, and after finishing this one a few days ago, I can start to see a common thread he weaves through the human condition that doesn't quite touch his characters' lives on the obvious level but is totally there in the undertow of history - we are all connected through our humanity, y'all, and while that's a hint too broad a theme to draw everything neat and tightly together in this book, it's still a great excuse to explore several connected areas of transatlantic history.

 There's a pair of aviators between the World Wars who want to fly nonstop from New York to Great Britain and the lady reporter and her photographer daughter covering them; there's the granddaughter of the photographer fighting to keep hold of the family ice farm in 2011; backtrack and you'll find Frederick Douglas uncomfortable with his place of refinement yet terrified of getting dragged back to slavery on his Dublin book tour in the late 19th century and the ladies' distant relative, a maid who walked miles of Irish coast to gain her freedom inspired by his teachings.

 The Douglas sections were my favorite. He was drawn as such a human character, fond of the finer things and elevated purposes of life but disgusted at the relief he felt when he was whisked away from Ireland's poverty. Plus he never really fit in, even among all the fervent abolitionist he stayed with, all because of something he couldn't help but fought so hard to break. And he had these dumbbells he would work out with to cure writer's block, and the descriptions of his white sleeves billowing as he wrote made him sound a very grand sight at work. There are all these little touches of unconscious dignity that make him very believable as both a powerhouse presence and a man realizing the extend of the work to come.

 All of the characters were drawn well, tending toward introspection focused outward so they weren't always clear on why they felt what they did but they saw the rest of the world clearly. I liked that McCann resisted going for any of the obvious historical connotations and just painted peripheral events to slide in a slantwise portrait of the times.

 Good stuff. I accidentally got the Large Print edition of this but ain't no thang. It's gotta go back to the library but I will miss it.

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