I’ve admired Colum McCann’s writing since I first read “This Side of Brightness” more than 15 years ago, and my admiration has grown enormously with the publication of his last two novels, “Let The Great World Spin” in 2009 and “Transatlantic” which came out just last month. McCann’s storytelling is masterful, and his books are deep and realistic without being at all depressing.
I found a clue as to why I like McCann’s writing so much in an article about him that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in early June. McCann was invited to talk to high school students at Newton High School, just up the road from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the horrible shootings last December. Many of the Newton High students had ties to the 20 children and 6 adults who were killed at Sandy Hook, and a Newton High teacher had asked his classes to read “Let The Great World Spin” to help them deal with what they had gone through.
Here are the last two paragraphs of the Times Magazine’s story:
“In each of the classes in Newton, the conversation eventually drifted to the question of loss, and to the way McCann’s book takes on grief and despair and then offers the possibility for something else. It was impossible to look at those kids and not wonder what their own histories were, and how those histories would shape their lives. Occasionally, their experiences on the day of the shootings or in the months since would puncture the discussion. One girl remembered the younger children on the day of the shootings being gathered together outdoors. ‘I looked around at my peers,’ she said, ‘and they were playing with the kids.’ She thinks of that sometimes, she said, when she’s trying to find ‘a little spot of light.’ In another class, a boy who spent nearly the entire discussion staring down at his desk suddenly raised his head and said that he used to believe the truth that pain makes you stronger, but he didn’t know anymore. ‘For some people pain is what you get,’ he said.
“McCann thanked him for saying that. He was no psychologist, he said, but he believed it was necessary to acknowledge how powerful despair can be. The question was how to get to a place beyond that. ‘You have to beat the cynics at their own game,’ he said.... There was nothing the least bit preachy in his tone. ‘I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says “This is not enough.” But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.’ He couldn’t fathom what they were going through, he said, but he knew that the struggle against cynicism would be the challenge for them, as it is for anyone, for the rest of their lives.’
Reading this, I realized why I feel so deeply about Colum McCann’s books. Not only is he a great storyteller, he is an inspiring storyteller as well. You don’t find that combination very often.