TransAtlantic inspires a look at our family history

Back from an Oregon vacation and an unforgettable family reunion in Cannon Beach.

Several books traveled with me, of course, including Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, which we’d chosen for our family reunion book club, and Natalie Goldberg’s newest title, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. I tore through Goldberg’s book, as anyone who is a Goldberg fan will understand, while I mulled over how to frame our TransAtlantic book club discussion.

I didn’t expect to find this serendipitous connection between the two books on page 3 of The True Secret:

The True Secret of Writing book cover“Writing is for everyone, like eating and sleeping….Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write. Slave owners were afraid to think of these people as human. To read and to write is to be empowered. No shackle can ultimately hold you.

To write is to continue the human lineage. For my grandfather, coming from Russia at seventeen, it was enough to learn the language. Today, it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream. To write, to pass on the dream and tell its truth. Get to work. Nothing fancy. Begin with the ordinary.”

Transatlantic book coverReading Goldberg’s words – get to work, nothing fancy, begin with the ordinary – I thought of Colum McCann’s writing, and of Lily Duggan, the fictitious Irish housemaid in TransAtlantic who could not read or write and came penniless to America, whose daughter became an influential journalist and wrote about the first non-stop transatlantic flight, by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland (see this photo of their landing.)

Reading Goldberg’s words – no shackles can ultimately hold you –  I thought of the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and what he was able to accomplish thanks to his education.

Reading Goldberg’s words – it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream –  I decided to ask my husband’s family if they identified with their Irish ancestry. Do they ever think about it, do they find it relevant to their lives, or do they see themselves as thoroughly American? If it’s our responsibility to further the immigrant dream (whether we consider ourselves writers or not), what does that mean and how do we do that?

One branch of my husband’s family came from Drummin Parish, Westport in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. They immigrated to America after the English Earl of Aran evicted them and 40 other families from the land where they were tenant farmers. Nearly the entire town came to America, including their local priest, shortly after the Civil War. (Again, I think of TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan and her deep and involuntary involvement in the Civil War.) They settled in Little Falls, New York, where they may have worked on the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Several of the brothers started a construction and masonry company and built the Beechnut Plant in Canajoharie, locks in the Mohawk River, and many buildings in the Mohawk Valley.

In our discussion, my father-in-law said he thought of himself as American, while his sister identified strongly with her Irish Catholic heritage. I wondered why there was such a difference in the same family. My sister-in-law thought it might be that it had been the man’s responsibility to be successful and earn a good living; to do that he had to shed his ethnicity in the workplace and become “American.” The woman had stayed home, preserving family rituals and traditions, passing on family history, perhaps assimilating more slowly.

Someone said she thought it unusual TransAtlantic’s Lily Duggan was not religious and not raised Catholic, and that led to a discussion of Catholic identity. My mother-in-law, like my husband’s aunt, strongly identified as Irish Catholic, and said when she was growing up being Catholic was more important than being Irish. She told the story of an uncle who wept bitterly when one of his children married a Protestant. Someone else commented that in the New Jersey town where he grew up, there was an Italian Catholic church, an Irish Catholic church, and a Polish Catholic church.

I wanted to know which TransAtlantic characters made the deepest impression. My father-in-law was especially taken with the brilliance, dedication, and integrity of  Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. He did some research and found a fascinating interview with Mitchell after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Almost all of us loved Lily, of course. Some of us didn’t know anything about Frederick Douglass and his connection with Ireland, and we’d never heard of Alcock and Brown or their amazing flight.

There were at least four generations at our family reunion. I’m so glad some of us shared the reading of TransAtlantic. I, for one, could have kept our discussion going longer than we had time for.

I don’t think we answered the question of how to further the immigrant dream or whether that is something we’ll even think about, and I don’t know how strongly the younger generation will identify with their Irish heritage. But I do find it fascinating how McCann weaves fiction and nonfiction together to form a narrative arc that extends through time and across generations. It’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.

I think I see similar through-lines across time in my husband’s family, whether they’re passed down through familial and social influences, or encoded in their DNA, or both: a mechanical and engineering aptitude, keen intelligence, a predilection for risk-taking, an independent spirit, a deep curiosity about the world, and a strong sense of justice. When all of us get together for these reunions that are way too brief, you can see these commonalities.

Have you ever had a book club at your family reunion? If so, what did you read? Tell us about it in the comments.

If you would like to learn more about Natalie Goldberg, her new book, and the true secret of writing (I’m not going to spill the beans), listen to this wonderful 30-minute podcast on Natalie’s website.

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach

Haystack, Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach and bonfires

Evening bonfires

4 responses

  1. I like that: “Writing is for everyone.” Not sure about furthering the immigrant dream. I’d say it’s important to remember the immigrant dream and that it can come true. I love reading immigrant stories of persevering over all odds to reach success. I know it doesn’t always happen, so in those cases it is important to remember and keep reaching for the dream. What an interesting and pertinent book to discuss at a family reunion. And such interesting responses!

  2. Beautiful post, Valorie. Thanks for sharing your experiences at your family reunion and your conversations on Colum McCann’s book. It was really fascinating to know how your father-in-law on one side and his sister and your mother-in-law on another had different thoughts on what they identify with. I found the explanation for that also quite interesting. I liked very much what you said about McCann’s book – that “the narrative arc…extends through time and across generations” and “it’s much larger than any single life, and yet every individual has a role to play.” Glad to know that you had a wonderful, literary family reunion. Thanks for telling us about Natalie Goldberg’s book. I will look for that. The pictures you have posted are very beautiful.

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