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

Traveling orchardist country

Traveling in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, we’ve had marionberry syrup on pancakes at the B & B we’re staying at and huckleberry smoothies at an arts & crafts fair. Peaches, apricots, pears, cherries, strawberries, blueberries and grapes also grow in this land of orchards, vineyards, and farm stands.

I just finished Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, set in early 20th century Washington, where an orchardist takes in two pregnant, runaway teenagers. Amanda’s prose is as lush and beautiful as the land she writes about.  The Orchardist is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Amanda is a major new talent, and she’s young, so we can look forward to more of her books.

The Orchardist book cover

We stopped at The Old Trunk Antiques , which has an excellent collection of used and older books. I found a rare edition of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth that had a book jacket with promotional photos from the 1937 movie. (See a previous post on The Good Earth.)

The Old Trunk book and antiques

That was too expensive for me, but I bought Buck’s, Peony, a novel I’m unlikely to encounter in my everyday book browsing. The Old Trunk proprietors are gracious and very knowledgeable about the history of the Hood River area.

Peony book cover

River House, a memoir of the high desert

Three Sisters mountains

Three Sisters

 

Before we head to our family reunion in Cannon Beach, Oregon, we’ve been exploring the high desert east of the Cascades. Of course, I had to find a book indigenous to this place, so I settled on Sarahlee Lawrence’s memoir, River House.

Sarahlee is a kind of modern-day superwoman: an expert river runner who navigated the most dangerous rivers in South America and Africa by the time she was 21, a rancher who built from scratch her own log cabin with the help of her father, and a talented young writer who gives us an honest, unromantic vision of what it is like to live off the land here.

After her almost unbelievably dangerous river adventures, Sarahlee decided to return to the ranch where she grew up with her parents and grandparents, to reconnect to the land and build her own log cabin.

River House chronicles the building of the cabin, Sarahlee’s struggle to reconcile her love of river running with the land-locked life of the ranch, and her fraught relationship with her father, a former surfer (riding wild water is in their blood) who has ranched for thirty years and is worn out by the land and the unrelenting physical labor.

If you want to steep yourself in the physical terrain and culture of central Oregon’s high desert, if you want a vicarious taste of backbreaking labor as told by a young woman with a strong spiritual connection to the land, River House is the book for you.

If your aim is to build a luxury McMansion with all the creature comforts and a picture window view of Three Sisters, this memoir will probably make you uncomfortable.

I found River House to be a great read. As we drove around the hot, dry land and hiked in the stunning forests along the ice-cold Metolius River and around the secluded Suttle Lake, I was very conscious of being a tourist, a stranger in this unusual place.

There is a vast divide between those of us who live a sedentary life behind computer screens and plugged into social media and those who work the land every single day of the year.

MEMOIRS OF LAND AND PLACE

River House, Sarahlee Lawrence

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris

A Country Year, Sue Hubbell

Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir

Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes

Chapel in the Pines

Sunday morning, Chapel in the Pines, Camp Sherman

Quilt

Quilting is a fine art and craft here.

Fire Danger

A day after we saw this sign, it was 99 degrees and the fire precaution was upgraded to Extreme.

Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa pine

Supermoon and journeys: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

Moon in my backyard

I write this on the night of the supermoon, high in the sky outside my dining room window.

In her journal, Cheryl Strayed kept a list of the books she burned as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail:  Dubliners by James Joyce; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Novel by James Michener; The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington; plus a few more.

Every evening she’d make a campfire, tear out the pages she’d read that day, and feed them to the flames to lighten the load in her over-stuffed pack. I imagine her performing her nightly ritual, the words on paper turning to ash.

Cheryl carried one book the length of her trip: The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich.

Reading Wild, I remember this stray fact: In college, I wrote my senior seminar English paper on Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. I’d like to find that old English paper so I can read it after all these years and see what I had to say about Rich’s poetry.

Reading Wild, I remember a vacation in Portland, Oregon to visit family. Our boys were six and nine at the time.

We decided to hike with my sister-in-law and her family along the lower elevations of Mount Hood in search of a waterfall whose name I can’t remember. The map posted at the trail head indicated the hike was a couple of miles. A manageable trip for young children, we thought. The day was hot and sunny, but we walked in the shade of a beautiful pine forest along an easy, well-cleared path.

When Cheryl began walking, her pack was so heavy she couldn’t lift it, and her brand new REI hiking boots were too small.  Along the way, she shed many layers of skin from the pads of her feet and several toenails as well.

She’d walk a week without seeing anyone. She’d go days with a handful of change to her name until she reached a town where a supply pack (mailed by a friend) awaited, with necessities and two ten dollar bills to tide her over for the next couple hundred miles.

The day of our hike we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Until it got to be not so much fun anymore. Until the children were dragging, and the teenage cousin and her friend decided to go on ahead.

One of our boys (who shall remain nameless) grew cranky. The heat was intense and our water was running low. But we figured we were almost to the waterfall, so we kept going.

We walked another half hour, and then in a full meltdown, the thoroughly overheated and tired boy refused to go any further. We’d stopped next to a creek, and my husband took his handkerchief, dipped it in the ice-cold mountain water, and we took turns bathing our faces with it.

My in-laws decided to keep going with their children while we cooled off at the stream. Before long, I was ready to move on. My husband stayed behind with the tired one, cajoling him to take off his shoes and socks and wade in the stream.

Our original group had now split into four groups, which made me uneasy. Walking along holding my son’s hand, I hoped the path wouldn’t split off. What if we went the wrong way and got lost? We saw an older couple approaching as they headed back down the trail.

“Are we close to the waterfall?” I asked.

“You’re getting there. But you’ve a ways to go,” the man said. Not what I wanted to hear.

At the age of 26, with little preparation and no extreme hiking experience, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was grieving for her mother, who had died in her early forties a month after a cancer diagnosis, and Cheryl had been making a mess of her life ever since. She hoped the trip would save her in some way.

My son and I heard rushing water and felt a million invisible, blessedly cool droplets on our skin before we saw the waterfall. In the clearing ahead, ribbons of spray curved and tumbled down a wall of solid rock, like a bridal veil fluttering in a breeze. Instantly, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We were like parched plants coming back to life after a generous watering.

Everyone had arrived except for my husband and the tired one; they came along a few minutes later. In this peaceful and secluded Shangri La we stretched ourselves out on large, flat rocks and talked as the kids splashed about the stream looking for tadpoles.

Having walked 1100 miles, Cheryl ended her journey at the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River, which lay between Oregon and Washington.

She’d become a different person, inside and out.

Do good books make you remember, too?

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

With that, I leave you “A Story for Tomorrow,” posted today on Brain Pickings.

%d bloggers like this: