Failure Is Impossible

Hey women, and everyone, LISTEN UP AND SHARE, a message from author Sonja Livingston & Susan B Anthony in Rochester, NY. Are you ready?

Susan B Anthony.png

Source:  Wikimedia Commons &

http://www.archive.org/stream/historyofwomansu01stanuoft#page/n603/mode/2up

Engraved by G. E. Perine & Co., NY, approx. 1855, plus or minus ten years

“I keep walking by Susan B.’s grave, as if her bones might bolster me–or maybe not so much her bones anymore as her dust–or maybe that too is a stretch. More like her spirit. Here I am on the day before the day, letting Miss Anthony’s indomitable spirit soak into my every cell. It’s a glorious morning. Even the trees are conspiring. Oaks and ashes have gone bronze and gold, the last of the maples are flaming. You were right, Miss Susan, failure is impossible.”  Sonja Livingston

https://instagram.com/p/BMgwyvnB_ee/

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

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