Around this time last year, a friend of mine lent me a paperback copy of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was nothing short of masterful, an eloquent novel filled with beauty, wit, humor, and wisdom–and a helluva story as well. A variety of personal histories are threaded around the dazzling 1974 tight-rope walk of Philippe Petite between the World Trade Towers and set against the more resonant chapter in the Towers’ history, with the tragedy of 9/11 looming in the background. The writing was dizzily beautiful, every page an extraordinary read.
When I returned to work at the beginning of the school year, I learned that many of my colleagues were also reading McCann’s novel. And each of them held the same high opinion.
Now, this summer I was excited for the release of McCann’s latest novel, Trans Atlantic. And my anticipation was well worth it.
Like the previous work, McCann’ new novel is steeped in history, although this work stretches from 1847 to 1998 and concerns three separate stories of historic figures who have traveled across the Atlantic.
The novel begins in 1919 with two pilots, Alcock and Brown, both veteran RAF flyers, about to embark on the first transatlantic flight. The two leave from Newfoundland for Ireland, with a thermos of tea, a few wax-papered sandwiches, a load of mail, and a lot of gumption. At one point, close to their end point then get caught in an enormous cloud. They lose their perspective, not knowing what’s up or down, what’s left or right, The only way to survive is to go into a spin–a dangerous thing in itself. But the ultimate fly out and land in a bog field in Galway. The soft earth swallows the nose of their plane.
In fact, “spinning” is a theme that plays greatly in this book–seemingly carrying on a theme outlined in the last novel.
The second story comes seventy years earlier, and Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, has traveled to Ireland to promote his book. (Although he had tried to book first class passage, he had been threatened and made to sleep in steerage.) In Ireland, however, he is feted and adored by the Anglo-Irish; he gives speeches to large audiences, garners great donations to send home to the abolitionist movement and his book sells well. But he too feels he is spinning. At one point, he even refers to himself as a tightrope walker (he says “funambulist”–I had to look it up.) Again we are echoing the tropes of the last novel.
Douglas is “spinning” because while he is being celebrated for his passion for equality and the end of slavery in America, he witnesses the utter horror of the starving Irish, starving while rivers of food, livestock and goods are exported to the rest of the British Empire. (Ireland led the British Empire in beef exports during the years of the potato famine!) It is the beginning of the potato blight, and Douglas is greatly affected by what he sees–the men whose faces are brown from eating bark, the woman whose arms are like ropes asking them to take care of her dead infant–affected by the disparity between the Anglo overlords and the downtrodden Irish.
On stage, he meets and joins the great liberator, Daniel O’Connell, but when he later expounds O’Connell’s beliefs at table, his host pulls him aside and tells him not to “bite the hand that feeds him.” Douglas’ tightrope-walk is to embrace justice and freedom for his people, while keeping silent about the horrors of Ireland in the 1840s. The one will bring funds and awareness to the abolitionist movement back home; the other would dry those funds up. It is a dizzying conundrum.
The third story takes place in 1998 and follows George Mitchell as he jets back and forth across the Atlantic negotiating what would become the Good Friday Peace Accord. Mitchell has been picked by President Clinton to lead this historic conference, and, aside from the constant jetting back and forth, he feels his head spinning from the various participants in the process: the separate governments, the various paramilitary organizations, the political parties, the loyalists, the nationalists, the Gaels, the Unionists, etc.
Here is the world that Mitchell is trying to straighten out, trying to stop from spinning further out of control:
The Battle of the Boyne. Eniskillen. Bloody Sunday. There was a clue in every detail. Gary was a Prod. Seamus was a Taig. Liz lived on the Shankill Road. Bobby on the Falls. Sean went to St. Columba’s. Jeremy to Campbell. Bushmill’s was a Protestant whiskey. Jamesons for Catholics. Nobody drove a green car. Your tie was never orange. You went for holidays in Bundoran or you went to Portrush. Fly you flag. Pick your poison. Choose your hangman.
Added to this, the ex-senator, is an old father. At sixty-four, his son is only five months old. Talk about your head spinning. In the five months of his son’s life, Mitchell has been home less than twenty days–his transatlantic treks becoming more and more urgent. (Mitchell did this for two years and received zero salary, just expenses.)
All three stories–like the stories in Let the Great World Spin–are threaded together in a marvelous tapestry of history and generation, of perspective and connection. Four generations of women–from the scullery maid who met Douglass in 1846 and emigrated on a coffin ship to America to her great, granddaughter shaken but unbowed by the Troubles that George Mitchell is striving to repair–weave their story through the historic narrative.
And the language is exquisite. The streets of New York, the light on the town of Cove, the sky above the Atlantic, the horrors of a Civil War field hospital, the ice fields of Minnesota, all are described with details that are both lyrical and true. The inner and outer lives of both the historic personages and the fictional characters are drawn with verisimilitude and generosity. And the story itself is affirmative and moving, profoundly moving.
In an NPR interview after Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award, McCann implied that he now thinks of himself as a New York writer. That may be so. But the transatlantic tug is a strong one, and his Irish way with words is very much still serving him well.
Find the book and read it. It is that good.