________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 7 . . . . October 14, 2011

cover

Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic. (I Am Canada).

Hugh Brewster.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2011.
195 pp., hardcover, $14.99.
ISBN 978-1-4431-0465-4.

Subject Heading:
Titanic (Steamship)-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4

   

excerpt:

Soon the Titanic was approaching two smaller liners that were tied up together at the pier, with crowds of people standing on their decks to get a good view of our departure. All of a sudden I jumped as several short, sharp cracks split the air like gunshots. The mooring cables from one of the liners flew upward and whipped back into the crowd.

"Whoa!" I said. "What was that?"

"Those lines just snapped like threads!" the photographer said. "It must have been suction from our wake. I hope no one was hurt."

Could suction from the Titanic's passing have caused this? I wondered. The ship nearest to us, now untethered, was beginning to swing out in our direction.

"Uh-oh," I said. "That looks like trouble!"

The stern of the liner kept moving outward until it was almost at a right angle to us. The photographer was leaning over the rail with his camera at arm's length. A newspaper headline suddenly popped into my head: Titanic in Crash While Leaving Port. I imagined myself telling the boys at my new school in Canada all about it.

The Titanic was the biggest, the best, the unsinkable, and on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912, it was full of the richest, most famous of the upper-class English-speaking world as well as a number of Irish emigrants and others. No wonder her fascination for newspapers and people in general before, after, and long after her collision with an iceberg and her sinking in the North Atlantic. She did not go down "with all hands", but only about a third of those aboard were saved.

      Hugh Brewster, a Titanic scholar and author of several books on the subject, has written a gripping account of the disaster as seen through the eyes of young Jamie Laidlaw. Jamie, his parents, his mother's maid, and his dog, were all first-class passengers on the Titanic. Yes, the dog, too. There was special kennel accommodation for the pets of passengers on board the ship. (Query: the dogs were exercised on the deck, as they would have to be, either by their owners or by one of the crew, but no mention is made of either the necessity of 'scooping', or of the propensity of male dogs to mark their territory.) The details of the luxurious furnishings, the elaborate food, and the many facilities for the comfort and entertainment of the passengers are all indicated, particularly as most of them--other than the food--were not designed primarily with teen-aged boys in mind.

      Then came the crunch and the incredible debacle of the launching of lifeboats only half-full, in spite of there not being enough spaces, even if they had been fully loaded, to accommodate all the passengers. All the named passengers in the book, other than the Laidlaws, are actual people who were present on the ship, their stories and their fates known. This fact gives the whole book an authenticity that imaginary characters, however, well-drawn, could not have. It also lends credence to an apparent deduction about one John Ryerson, a young survivor of the sinking who had been travelling back to New York with his family after the tragic death of his older brother in a car accident in France. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Brewster says that John "refused to speak of the disaster" for many years afterwards, and, in the story, there are repeated suggestions that he had dressed as a girl in order to get onto one of the lifeboats. Certainly, it would have been both shameful and cowardly to have done such a thing.

     Disasters are a fruitful source of exciting stories. That the reader knows the outcome does not detract from the nerve-tingling anticipation of the disaster. And this is a real boys' story, using that description in the best possible way. It is not that girls won't enjoy it--they will--but rather that the story is as close to nonfiction as it can be, while still being a story or "History with conversation" as Josephine Tey once put it. The people are real, as I said; Jamie's survival by managing to stand balanced for hours with one foot on either side of the keel of an overturned life boat was actually how a number of passengers survived until rescue, and so on. It makes for a very satisfying read--it's a good story with a believable hero in an authentic situation.

     Reading the book, I accepted the fact of Jamie and others survived by standing on the bottom of an overturned lifeboat, but it wasn't until I looked at the appended archival photographs that I realized just how it was possible. Lifeboats have practically no keel, very flat bottoms, and are broad in the beam, and so there is a fairly large level area where it would be possible to stay balanced, at least for a time, if everyone were careful and alert. That Jamie's group managed this is reasonably explained by the author's including a ship's officer among those present who took charge and kept everyone in order. Otherwise, the uncoordinated rocking of the boat would have allowed the air beneath it to escape, and the whole thing would have sunk or capsized. Other photographs are either helpful, touching, or both, and add to the general historical interest.

Highly Recommended.

Mary Thomas lives in Winnipeg, MB, and the one time she travelled by ship across the North Atlantic, the life-boat drill seemed a bit of a farce. Obviously it isn't always!

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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