When you book your seat on a flight, from the comfort of your couch no less, do you ever pause and consider the marvel that is air travel? Do we ever stop and think just how far we’ve come? It’s a long cry certainly from the flight across the Atlantic Ocean that Alcock and Brown took.
Colum McCann captures the bone rattling intensity and magic of those hours of madness as two men, survivors of war, took to the clouds; this time to face an adversary of a different kind. What must have gone through Brown’s mind as he repeatedly left his seat to clear ice from the plane? I think I’ll take a road trip out to Clifden to see for myself where the men landed in a haze of peat and glory.
Colum shares three stories but manages to ultimately unite all our characters across time and place. It made for an interesting format and kept my attention until the end. Some characters and their experiences, naturally, made more of an impact than others. The female centred story of Lily Erhlich could easily be a stand-alone novel; a young maid leaves Ireland behind in the dead of night and boards a ship heading for a better life in America. Like so many others who fled to America, before and since, Lily was faced with many challenges in her new environment and was pushed to the limits of endurance. Her story is told with great dignity and compassion.
She crosses paths with Frederick Douglas, an ex-slave who champions the plight of his people in Ireland. He is welcomed with open arms but is plagued by his own insecurities and by the distressing sights of a country besieged by hunger. Slavery, he realises, can come in different forms. Douglas is a hard character to warm to and I can’t put my finger quite as to why McCann perpetrates this distance. The glimpses we are given into Dublin, just preceding the Famine are wonderfully evocative and it will once again make you question the nature of one of the greatest disasters ever to hit our shores. It also puts it context with other global events that are happening such as the fight to abolish slavery.
When McCann took on the task of outlining another monumental event in our history, that of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, he chose George Mitchell to be his guide. Colum spent time with George and his wife in order to gain an insight into how George’s constant journeying across the Atlantic, trying to help salvage a fragile sense of peace and stability, affected their own family. This section of the novel is in my opinion the weak link, McCann’s effort to combine the lives of the characters seamlessly falters at times and the reader has a lot of work to do in order to stay on top of events. The reward is waiting for you at the end however and McCann’s ability to tell stories with grace and light is clear to be seen.
The Irish American story is a powerful one. (Like all neighbours, we know a lot about each other!)
Remember to take note on your own travels of the stories that may be unfolding all around you.