My original plan was to cheat the system and read every word, but the last whole page of words in, We, The Drowned. However, I started that book like four weeks before Christmas and couldn’t even finish it. It’s a colossal whale of 700 and some pages about shipping in Norwegian territories and the dramas of the seas, both on the plank and off. Holy Shoe Horn, I’m only 300 pages of the way through. That plan plummeted to the ground rather swiftly when I decided not to even pack the book for the mountains for New Years.
Instead some singing angel made it possible that TransAtlantic was finally available for me in the library system. I think I waited almost five months to read this one, so long that I had forgotten that I even requested it at the time of that little email saying it was ready for me to borrow for only SEVEN days. If you saw my reading speed last year, then you know that I hardly ever read a book in seven days. I read a book a week if you look at the sheer number of books (58), but that was because some weeks my Maury drill sergeant of a professor didn’t assign as much reading as others for American Lit. Colum McCann was all mine through the new year, with his rave reviews and historical fiction, how could I not be completely enthralled with how he mapped American history with Irish history. As an Irish/Belgian/Cherokee American I am deeply interested in those cultures through the eyes of literature both nonfiction and fiction. I haven’t read Let The Grade World Spin (feel free to harangue me in your nicest sarcastic voice within the comments for this serious blunder) or any of his other wildly imaginative stories so I had no real gage of what to expect. I feel like I’m leading up to how great this book was, but in fact, I felt it dud like a pebble in a well. It was unexpectedly boring at times, actually.
Well, that’s not really fair. It was boring in parts and deeply interesting in others. I think when McCann was focused on the inner lives of the women that are tied together by (come to find out) one letter that has crossed the fogged seas, I was much more interested than the generalities in other chapters. In the beginning, I was pretty involved with the first flight of Brown and Alcock. Being a native of NC, I think I have to be interested in flight as we claim to have the “First in Flight” on our license plates. However, I think this was more so that I love when authors take something that I know nothing about and give intricate details of how those things work. It’s much like Roth’s description of making gloves in American Pastoral (which I’m still not over if anyone asks). I was hushed when the men were in the density of cloud without any gage or compass to secure whether they were in sky or herding just above the land. It was engrossing.
The next part is a perspective on the life of Frederick Douglass, which in my eyes, you just don’t touch. I like Frederick Douglass from his own writing, with his own tone and not in some fictional debut of Douglass for new generations (although I appreciate reintroducing his importance and in this book, celebrity, for the younger minds). I found Douglass to be dislikable in this telling, and I’ve never thought that before. Especially, in the later chapters when the girls go to see him speak and Lily talks about his new white wife, who seemed a bit of a trophy (especially when his African American wife is told from the perspective that she isn’t necessarily anything but a marker of where he’s come from – slavery). I don’t know, I had a bad taste with this section. I was fascinated by Douglass’ barbells and will be researching those for my own dorky curiosity.
The women in this novel were the true stars. Lily was inspiring just in the fact that she believed in the American Dream, some dormant seed growing within her, inspired by a man who didn’t even remember her name over dinner, yet knew that her face was familiar in its sweet modesty. I immediately responded to her view of American culture and I think all of us want to know a bit of where we’ve come from. That is the power in this collection of interweaving stories from one woman, Lily Duggen, to her daughters for generations.
The girls have such fascinating lives. You wouldn’t think that ice chunks, and moving ice chunks across a lake, and growing ice chunks from a frozen lake made perfect by drilling holes, not for baiting, but for icing, would be the most interesting thing in a novel, but it seriously was. Lily’s inner life with her son during the war and her husband in the ice harvesting and manufacturing business was the best part of this novel for me. It was also the showing of true triumph over self and country. Lily moved to America on Douglass’s word that it was a county moving towards greater freedom, and come to find out the soldiers she sewed up didn’t ever speak of freedom, but just of war. Women were objects, which is what history tells us we should be, though we have clearly proved to be immovable in our strength and move than moving in our ability to “get shit done.”
After working as the laundress of a war hospital (and an almost-nurse) she meets her husband who has an ice trade and a carriage and for some reason, I thought this one of the sweeter marriages in literature. It was a marriage of convenience, but still one of love. The women that follow in the line of Duggen’s all had this unbalance in their lives of expectations. Nothing was all true, or all untrue for any of them. Each suffered a full life; loss, hardships, floating, sarcasm and grandeur. None of these women lived perfectly, loved perfectly, or expected “perfectly.”
I think I really learned the true value of this book only at the end because the final daughter with the last paper-eaten letter was my favorite character in the whole story. She cloaked wetsuit and swam belly-up in her lough, caked in debt and grimy dog fur, and lived as a broken single woman in the shell of her family’s legacy. Yet, she wasn’t a victim. She had struck this almost perfect, and strange, cord of rebellion with defeat. Some of the best quotes are in this final section and some of the best characterization throughout the whole book.
“How had he ended up here, at the edge of the Irish Sea? What was it that brought us such distances, rowing upwards into the past” (283).
“I am not in the opinion that we become empty chars, but we certainly end up making room for others along the way” (267).
“As a boy Tomas loved the notion that the light hitting our eyes might be coming from a star that had already disappeared” (255).
“It’s hardly wisdom, but the older I get the more I believe that our lives are built not out of time, but light. The problem is that the images that so often return to me are seldom those I want” (254).
It’s true this is a slow one. It was a hilled read, there were sections that I would completely high gear and there were sections that I just had to drudge through to get to the next. I think I can safely say it was worth trudging through. That would only be fair to the famined mother, Lily Duggen, the child of Brown, and the constellations of Tomas’s decisions. It was a good first read for the year, a solid one. Not overwhelmingly good, like it’s all down hill from here, and not bottom rung so that I have to make sure the next one is glowing.
Lastly, the end of my Fall Semester with these first students is January 17th. I am a blubbering baby when it comes to Of Mice and Men, that book completely broke me, but I know that it’s not everyone’s favorite read. There are two options below for what my students should read entirely next semester. Let me know what you think.
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.