"Everything in This Country Must" by Colum McCann: An Analysis
This is a close reading of the short story, “Everything in this Country Must” by Colum McCann, from the book of the same title. I must warn the reader that this piece contains many spoilers so read no further if that is a concern.
“Everything in this Country Must” by Colum McCann (McCann, 2001: p. 3-15) is set in Northern Ireland during the British occupation and centres on a family’s encounter with a unit of troops. The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a fifteen year old girl, Katie. We join at a moment of action in which a draft horse is stuck in a river during a summer flood and find Katie, the narrator, and her father struggling to release it. Night begins to fall and all seems lost but just then hope is rekindled as lights are seen on the nearby road. The lights turn out to belong to a truck driven by a unit of British troops who set about helping to rescue the draft horse, much to the father’s dismay. It is revealed that the narrator’s mother and brother were killed by British troops in an accident, and it is this event that colours the world in which the narrator and her father live. The horse is eventually rescued and the narrator invites all involved back to the family home to the obvious displeasure of the father. The tension mounts and the father cracks, throwing all the soldiers out. The father leaves then too and kills the draft horse that was just saved.
The father’s character is a simple one that you would associate with the land, a man unchanging, and a man of few words. I don’t think this story would have worked as well if it had been told from the point of view of the father or even by an omniscient narrator as Katie’s innocence softens her father’s abruptness. Use of the word “hai” (McCann, 2001: p. 6) in the father’s dialogue places him firmly in the border counties.
This story has altered my perception of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Before reading this story I always associated the troubles in the North with politics and religion but by focusing on a very personal story McCann has made me reflect on the many human tragedies that must have unfolded. He gives us a story of deep sadness and loss but because it comes from an accident instead of an act of premeditated violence many of the feelings associated with the deaths are left unresolved. There has been no closure. Although the accident happened “long ago” (McCann, 2001: p. 5) the events still haunt those who remember. This tragedy has brought the troubles closer, made them more personal. I think that much of this change in perception relies on the fact that I am Irish, raised during the time when the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height, with all the background that goes with that. Unless you are from this moment in time how are you to have the same shift in perception? I don’t think you can.
McCann’s clever portrayal of the British soldiers in what is essentially a heroic role brings about a torn feeling in the reader. I automatically liked the soldiers because they have come to the aid of the locals and continue to help despite the father’s aggression:
“...Father came over and he pushed LongGrasses away. Father pushed hard.”
(McCann, 2001: p. 8)
But the narrator’s constant reminder of the lost wife and son creates great sympathy for her father:
“...Father said in a sad voice like his voice above Mammy’s and Fiachra’s coffins long ago.”
(McCann, 2001: p. 5)
“His eyes were steady looking at the river, maybe seeing Mammy and Fiachra staring back at him.”
(McCann, 2001: p. 7)
The second scene (McCann, 2001: p. 5-6), in which the father dips under the water for one final go at saving the horse and Katie sees the lights on the road, is an important one. The fathers smile on first seeing the lights gives us another side to his character. If it wasn’t for this moment he would have seemed one-dimensional. It also shows how important saving the horse was to him, something crucial to giving weight to the father’s final actions concerning the horse. The narrator even foresees the climax of the story when she writes:
“...and all the time Father was saying Drop it please Katie drop it, let her drown.” (McCann, 2001: p. 6)
It is almost inevitable that the horse will die because if it lived it would be a constant reminder of the day it was saved at the hands of those responsible for the death of half the family. We know that these soldiers did not kill the mother and son but this is not so clear in the father’s mind which can be seen in his many confrontations with them. He just sees the uniform and all it represents to him.
The way in which the author includes dialogue in the story, by writing it in italics, serves to meld it with the rest of the words. It doesn’t stand out as much as it would if convention was adhered to. The dialogue almost becomes the part of the narrator’s thoughts.
The patterning used at the end of the story effectively slows time for the reader as we wait to see what has happened outside.
“The clock still ticked.
It ticked and ticked and ticked.”
(McCann, 2001: p. 15)
Has the father killed the soldiers or the horse? Katie knows as soon as she sees her father’s face “like it was cut from stone” (McCann, 2001: p. 15). All is quiet, the horse is dead at her father’s hand and the world is a much less innocent place for the narrator.
She concludes poetically:
“...and I stood at the window...and still the rain kept coming down outside one two three and I was thinking oh what a small sky for so much rain.”
(McCann, 2001: p. 15)
McCann, Colum, 2001, Everything in this Country Must, London: Orion Books Ltd.