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

TransAtlantic turns history into story

Transatlantic book cover

Colum McCann loves to spend his days inside the skin of his characters, getting to know them and spinning out their incredible stories. The more unlike McCann they are, the better, he says. He’s a virtuoso, with all the confidence of an Irish storyteller. A stereotype, maybe, but I think there is something to it.

In TransAtlantic, McCann is adept at taking on the voices of historical figures like Frederick Douglass, founder of the civil rights movement in America, Arthur Brown, ace flyer and navigator, and Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland.  When he was writing the novel, McCann worked closely with Senator Mitchell’s wife to get the details right, but waited until the manuscript was finished before he actually met Mitchell.

My favorite character, though, is the fictitious Irish housemaid, Lily Duggan. In fact, I think Lily is the heart of the novel. She scrapes together enough money to emigrate from desperate famine and British oppression to America – only to find herself tending to endless numbers of soldiers dying because of another brand of oppression in the bloodbath of the Civil War. As my husband, a lover of history, said to me when we were talking about the book, history comes alive through the stories of individual people. (We’re both reading TransAtlantic for an upcoming family reunion – his extended family is of Irish descent.)

McCann writes each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character. He doesn’t write chronologically, but jumps back and forth in time. You have to be willing to go with the flow and accept that you won’t be with any character or confined to a particular time in history for long.

After I got used to that, I began to see what a powerful way this is to tell a story.

I became immersed in each character’s moment in TransAtlantic, thanks to the vivid, sensual writing. For me, McCann’s sweeping view across time and space casts his characters in a generous, compassionate light. Frederick Douglass and Lily Duggan may feel their lives don’t add up to much, but we see what their sacrifices mean to their descendants. Individuals may be forgotten, but their lives can, indeed, have great meaning, and the consequences of one’s actions can reach around the world and through time. We are all connected.

Frederick Douglass

Gravesite of Frederick Douglass, Mt. Hope Cemetery

At the same time, I thought about justice and oppression as I read TransAtlantic, and how various groups – Irish Catholics, blacks, women, and others – fight for the same thing. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they are in competition.

Frederick Douglass is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, across from the medical center where I work. In the 1800s, upstate New York was a hotbed of radical abolitionist and women’s suffrage fervor. The civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, too, and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. She was friends with Douglass and worked with him on abolitionist and women’s suffrage causes. Yet Anthony and women’s rights activists felt betrayed when black men finally won the right to vote and women did not. Ultimately, Douglass couldn’t hold out for women’s rights. He had to seize the moment when black men in American were given their freedom.

In TransAtlantic, McCann writes of Douglass’s trip to Ireland, where he was surprised to discover the Irish suffered under more deplorable conditions than many American slaves.  Douglass could fight only one fight at a time, and chose not to speak out against Irish Catholic oppression as he associated with British and privileged Irish dignitaries.

I’m looking forward to hearing what others think of TransAtlantic at our family reunion and which of the inseparable stories embedded in the novel they found most affecting: Senator Mitchell, at age 64 changing his infant son’s diaper before he flies to Belfast. Frederick Douglass deciding whether to take the starving Irish baby. Alcock and Brown praying their Vickers Vimy will make it out of the cloud before they crash into the ground. Lily Duggan washing the bodies of the dead young men.

If you’ve read TransAtlantic, please tell us what you think in the comments.

Grave site of Helen Pitts, 2nd wife of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s second wife, Helen Pitts, who came from a prominent Rochester family, was white. After her marriage, her family disowned her.

BY COLUM MCCANN:

TransAtlantic

Let the Great World Spin – National Book Award, 2009

Zoli

Dancer

Everything in This Country Must – short film, nominated for Academy Award, 2005

The Side of Brightness

Songdogs

Fishing the Sloe-Black River

Family reunion reading: TransAtlantic

It occurred to me it would be fun if all the book lovers attending our extended family reunion this summer read the same book. Similar to what we do here in Rochester, NY once a year: “If all of Rochester read the same book,” a great project started by librarian Nancy Pearl in Seattle.

At the reunion, we could have an optional, one-time-only gathering to talk about the book.

Wouldn’t it would be interesting, I thought, to read a book that explored my husband’s family’s Irish heritage?

Easier said than done, because we all know what great storytellers the Irish are. When I asked for book suggestions on the family reunion Facebook page, the list got longer and longer.  I hoped no one would suggest James Joyce.

Fortunately, no one did. (Librarian and former book editor that I am, I haven’t read a single book by James Joyce. Like every other avid reader in the universe, I intend to. Someday.)

Angela’s Ashes was on the list, of course. But with all due respect to Frank McCourt, his ship sailed some time ago, and we have to make way for younger authors.

I’m no good at conducting family polls and other administrative tasks, so I made an executive decision. I chose Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, because it’s hot off the presses, getting lots of attention, and Irish through and through.

Transatlantic book cover

I hope my husband’s family doesn’t mind I made this unilateral call, especially since I don’t have one ounce of Irish blood.

One of the things I most admire about my husband is his unshakeable sense of justice and fairness. I’ve seen this in my in-laws, too. In fact, I’ve seen it in many members of the family I was so fortunate to marry into. This is not just something they give lip service to. In many different ways, they live their beliefs.

Maybe being Irish has something to do with it.

I work directly across the street from Mount Hope Cemetery where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in the history of Rochester and our nation, is buried. There is a riveting scene in TransAtlantic that captures the essence of Douglass’s trip to Ireland in 1845.  I hadn’t realized Douglass had traveled to Ireland. That made TransAtlantic, for me, all the more relevant.

Members of our extended family have married or plan to marry into families from Nicaragua, Thailand, Saint Lucia, and other countries I can’t name simply because there are too many relatives to keep track of. (They are, after all, Irish.) If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m fascinated with the idea we may inherit from our ancestors a unique sensibility and way of looking at the world. I’m also intrigued by the wonderful new possibilities that may arise with the union of different cultures, possibilities inherent in the children who will be coming to our reunion.

Upcoming post on Transatlantic

In my next post, thoughts about Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, as well as his Let the Great World Spin. which won the National Book Award.

Here is a link to an interview with Colum McCann on Charlie Rose.

If you’ve read either of these books, tell us what you think in the comments. Are there books that speak to your own family’s ancestry?  Let us know!

 

IRISH FAMILY REUNION READING

The Sea, by John Banville

Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy (and other titles)

My Left Foot, by Christy Brown

Ireland, by Frank Delaney (and other titles)

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

The Wild Colonial Boy, by James Hynes

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

‘Tis, by Frank McCourt

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

The Mammy; The Granny; The Chisellers, all by Brendan O’Carroll

Trinity, by Leon Uris

They have started to harvest rye, so I am sitting here alone, writing

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

The tiny farm near Falkenberg, Sweden where the Johansson family lived at the turn of the century before they moved to a larger one. Here my grandmother, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, and other chores.

 

The Forest House

I just finished reading The Forest House, Joelle Fraser’s memoir about divorce and living alone in a remote village in northern California’s Diamond Mountains.

Like me, Joelle is of Swedish descent. She writes of her great-grandmother, Emma, who had to leave her six daughters with foster families and neighbors in Sweden when she emigrated to America in 1919 after a family tragedy. Emma saved the money to send for her children and was eventually reunited with five of them.

Joelle has a hard time after her divorce, especially living only part-time with her young son, and scraping by on a tiny income. She wonders what her great-grandmother might teach her about weathering nearly unbearable troubles. Joelle wants to tap in to “the knowledge of our ancestors that still exists within us…It’s the instinctive way we respond to a sudden change in fortune, or to the many variations of loss.”

She quotes Wendell Berry, who writes of “the profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”

This reminds me of Lone Frank’s book, My Beautiful Genome, and her fascination with the genetic “coding” we inherit from our ancestors.

We’re getting ready for an extended family reunion, so I’ve been thinking about ancestry as I look forward to seeing several generations of my husband’s family. To celebrate and explore their Irish heritage, we’re going to be reading Colum McCann’s new novel, Transatlantic. More about that in my next post.

Family letters from Sweden

In the meantime, here are excerpts from letters sent to my grandmother from Sweden. Recently, my cousin and I had a few of them translated.

Dikesgård

July 31, 1938

Dear Hulda and Family,

I would like to tell you all that Dad is gone from us forever. I have a heavy heart and am tired…his heart was in poor shape, so he died of a heart attack. He went so fast. We should all be prepared every hour that the Lord may wish to call us from here.

Dad was so good; we hope he is resting in the arms of the Savior. He went with me both to the Church and partook of the Communion. We hope that the good Lord’s mercy is so encompassing that he will accept all of us as his children.

We have our health. They have started to harvest rye so I am sitting here alone, writing….

Warm greetings from all of us to all of you from,

Your Mom

***

Skrea, February 19, 1969

Dear Sister Hulda,

Oskar is so well now that he could leave [the hospital] and he is riding around on his bicycle during the day. He is well off since he has a pension of more than 500 Crowns a month and has electric light and heating; the temperature is always 20 degrees C inside since heating is automatic…..

Annie is quick as she has always been. I…remember when she was going to school in Bölse and had a blue velvet cap which I thought was so beautiful. Hulda, maybe you also had that velvet hat…..

The kindest regards,

Jennie

***

Stockholm, November 5, 1971

Dear Sister Hulda,

We sisters are wondering how you are doing following Ivar’s death…..

Considering the circumstances, Oskar is doing pretty well; you may know that his left leg was amputated last spring; he had a gangrene in it, so that was the only solution. He walks, takes strolls with the help of two goats…

You will probably celebrate Christmas at one of your children’s. We shall be with Inez, Bengt, and their four children on Christmas Eve. Gunilla, Lars and little Karin live in Luleå, but they are coming here during the Christmas holiday…

Regards,

Signa and Carl

***

Dikesgård, December 1

Thank you for the letter and the Christmas greetings. How are you there so far away? Everyone asks Oskar if you are well and hale.

Here in Sweden it is raining only and the wind is blowing, but perhaps by Christmas it will be crisper….

I have my one leg, so I got an artificial one so I can walk a bit and I can drive a small car. I can no longer bike, it is hard, one has to do what one can. Soon it will be Christmas again; time goes by so quickly. I go home and sit in [illegible] to pass the time. I can read whatever I can put my hands on and pass the time.

With kind greetings and wishing you merry Christmas.

Oskar

MEMOIRS WITH ANCESTRY MOTIFS

The Forest House, by Joelle Fraser

My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank

Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg

The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon

If you can add to this list, please do so in the comments. And if you’ve read one of these books, let us know what you think about it.

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