“What mystery we lose when we figure things out…”

Imagine that in your possession is an unopened, nearly century-old letter that traveled on the first transatlantic flight. You have reason to believe it may contain historical information about a famous figure, and it almost surely contains a historical detail relevant to your own family. If you open the letter, you lower its (potential) monetary value. If you leave it unopened or sell it, you might never know what details, significant or not, of your own history, it may or may not contain. What would you do? Threading together three historical events, Colum McCann has written another beautiful novel. (Though his Let the Great World Spin remains my favorite, and is one I plan to re-read and blog on in the future.)

The historical aspects of Transatlantic include the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean (1919), a visit by Frederick Douglass to Dublin (1845), and Senator George Mitchell’s work on the Northern Ireland peace process that produced the Good Friday Agreement (1998). On the surface, these three historical events seem unrelated, yet as McCann’s novel reiterates, all life and history seem ultimately connected.

Regarding the letter and other mysteries, sometimes the unknown does have a certain excitement worthy of savoring – like when I paused before the last section of this book, knowing that the remaining pages would bring its conclusion (and possibly the opening of the letter). I knew I’d finish it, but I also wanted to savor my anticipation and wait until I had appropriate time and peace to devote to concluding this experience.

I love how McCann’s character studies the mysterious letter:

“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination…I have often wondered what might have happened if the letter had made it to its proper destination in Cork, what random turn of events might have grown out of it, what chance, what accidents, what curiosities…Unopened, the letter is even less effective of course, except for its preservation of possibility, the slight chance it contains a startling fact, or an insight into some forgotten beauty.”

In the end, whether the ending of a book or an opening of a letter isn’t as dramatic as imagined doesn’t really end up mattering. For me, it is usually my dog-eared pages, underlined sentences, or rather the gained experience, rather than the actual conclusion that are the most powerful and what I go back to.

“…perhaps there is a mystery in the obvious, too.”

So, yes, I’d open the letter.


McCann, Colum. TransAtlantic.New York: Random House, 2013.