TransAtlantic

by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic

Paperback, 319 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Book Summary

A tale spanning 150 years and two continents re-imagines the peace efforts of democracy champion Frederick Douglass, Sen. George Mitchell and World War I airmen John Alcock and Teddy Brown through the experiences of four generations of women.

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Awards and Recognition

14 weeks on NPR Hardcover Fiction Bestseller List

NPR stories about TransAtlantic

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The Fly List: Books About Takeoffs, Landings And Bumpy Rides

It takes a while to understand how all the parts of this book work together. It opens with three lengthy sections of historical fiction: One imagines Frederick Douglass' 1845 visit to Ireland, another is based on George Mitchell's work as a peace negotiator in Northern Ireland, and the third is about the 1919 trans-Atlantic flight that gives the book its title. The ties that bind these stories don't become clear until the concluding sections of the book. Some think the wait is too long, but

Book Your Trip

The Fly List: Books About Takeoffs, Landings And Bumpy Rides

It takes a while to understand how all the parts of this book work together. It opens with three lengthy sections of historical fiction: One imagines Frederick Douglass' 1845 visit to Ireland, another is based on George Mitchell's work as a peace negotiator in Northern Ireland, and the third is about the 1919 trans-Atlantic flight that gives the book its title. The ties that bind these stories don't become clear until the concluding sections of the book. Some think the wait is too long, but

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: TransAtlantic

1998

para bellum

HE EMERGES FROM THE BRIGHT ELEVATOR. MOVES THROUGH the marbled lobby towards the revolving door. Sixty-four years old.

Slender. Graying. A slight strain of yesterday's tennis in his body.

A dark blue suit jacket, slightly rumpled. A pale blue sweater underneath. Slacks creased. Nothing brash, nothing showy. Even the way he walks has a quiet to it. His shoes sound clean and sharp against the floor. He carries a small leather suitcase. He tilts his head towards the doorman who leans down to take the case: just a suit, a shirt, a shaving kit, an extra set of shoes. Under his other arm he keeps his briefcase tight.

Through the lobby quickly. He hears his name from several angles. The concierge, an elderly neighbor on the lobby couch, the handyman cleaning the large glass panes. It is as if the revolving door has caught the words and begun to let them spin. Mr. Mitchell. Senator. George. Sir.

The black town car sits idling outside the apartment building. A little shiver from its exhaust. A relief floods through him. No press. No photographers. A hard New York rain, so different from the Irish kind: hurrying itself along, impatient, dodging the umbrellas.

He steps out into the afternoon. Beyond the awning, an umbrella is held aloft for him and the car door is opened.

— Thank you, Ramon.

There is always a moment of dread that there might be someone waiting inside the car. Some news. Some report. Some bombing. No surrender.

He slips into the rear seat, lays his head against the cool leather. Forever an instant when he feels he can turn around, reinvent. That other life. Upstairs. Waiting. He has been the subject of many newspaper columns recently: his beautiful young wife, his new child, the peace process. It stuns him to think that he can still be copy after so many years. Captured on camera. Pulled through the electronic mill. His caricature on the op-ed pages, serious and spectacled. He 'd like a long sweep of silence. Just to sit here in this seat and close his eyes. Allow himself a brief snooze.

The front door opens and Ramon slides into the seat, leans out, shakes the umbrella, glances over his shoulder.

— The usual, Senator?

Almost two hundred flights over the past three years. One every three days. New York to London, London to Belfast, Belfast to Dublin, Dublin to D.C., D.C. to New York. Jetliners, private planes, government charters. Trains, town cars, taxis. He lives out his life in two bodies, two wardrobes, two rooms, two clocks.

— JFK, yes. Thank you, Ramon.

The car shifts minutely underneath him, out onto Broadway. A familiar sudden loss, a sadness, the sorrow of a closed vehicle, moving away.

— Just a moment, Ramon, he says.

— Sir?

— I'll be right back.

The car eases to a stop. He reaches for the door handle, climbs out, perplexing the doormen as he hurries quickly through the marbled lobby, into the elevator, his polished shoes clicking, carrying the rain.

THE NINETEENTH FLOOR. Glass and high ceilings. The windows slightly open. Rows of long white bookshelves. Elegant Persian rugs. An early lamp lit in the corner. He moves quietly over the Brazilian hardwood. A collision of light, even with the rain coming down outside. South to Columbus Circle. East to Central Park. West to the Hudson. From below he can hear the Sunday buskers, the music drifting up. Jazz.
Heather stands in their son's bedroom, hunched over the changing table, hair pulled high to her neck. She does not hear him enter. He remains at the door, watching as she pulls together the velcro of the diaper. She leans down and kisses their son's stomach. She undoes her dark hair and leans again over the child. Tickling him. A giggle from the baby.


The Senator remains at the bedroom door until she senses him standing behind her. She says his name, unlatches the child from the changing table, swaddles the boy in a blanket. She laughs and steps across the fine carpet, still carrying the soiled diaper.

— You forget something?

— No.

He kisses her. Then his son. He pinches the boy playfully on the toes. The roll of soft skin at his fingers.

He takes the diaper — still warm to the touch — and drops it in the diaper pail. Life, he thinks, is still capable of the most extraordinary quips. A warm diaper. At sixty-four.

Heather walks him back to the elevator, takes the flap end of his suit jacket, draws him close. The scent of their son on both their hands. The elevator cables pitch their mourn.

WHAT SHE WORRIES most of all is that he will become the flesh at the end of an assassin's bullet.

SO MANY MURDERS arrive out of the blue. The young Catholic woman with the British soldier slumped over her child, a hiss of air from the bullet wound in his back. The man in the taxicab with the cold steel at his neck. The bomb left outside the barracks in Newtownards. The girl in Manchester thrown twenty feet in the air, her legs separating from her as she flew. The forty-seven-year-old woman tarred and feathered and left tied to a lamppost on the Ormeau Road. The postman blinded by the letter bomb. The teenager with a sixpack of bullet holes in his knees, his ankles, his elbows.


When she was with him in Northern Ireland, last July, it chilled Heather to see wheeled mirrors being slid in under the car before they drove off. George said it was just a formality. Nothing for her to worry about. He had an air about him, a midcentury dignity that dismissed most danger.


She liked to watch him in a crowd. The way he could forget himself, dissolve and allow everyone else a sense of their own importance. He believed in people, he listened well.


From the book TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann. Copyright 2013 by Colum McCann. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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