"Dear God, Jim." I turned back to him, mirroring the terror in his face as the horrible truth rushed in. "Her hull-it's riddled with holes!"
The emergency horn gave a single blast, making us both jump. All hands to the boats. This was no drill. Jim looked over his shoulder as crew members, some half-dressed, burst from the doors and ran to their stations. Within seconds, two men had climbed in the lifeboat while the team swung the davits, the huge pair of cranes that suspended the lifeboat over the Boat Deck. Another four men gritted their teeth as they pushed the boat clear of the rail, where it hung over the dark water seventy feet below.
They'd done this drill hundreds of times, but never on a tilting ship, and even the slightest list had an enormous effect on the two-and-a-half-ton steel lifeboats. Though it looked as if the men might get three or four free, most of the other lifeboats sat jammed against their davits, and no matter how the men had practised or how they scrambled and bellowed now, the fact of it was, those boats were stuck.
Jim looked over his shoulder and then back at me, torn. "Promise me, Ellie, promise me you'll get to a boat."
"Come with me!" I gripped his dark coat, not wanting to let him go. A great trembling ran through me and wouldn't stop.
He took my hands and held them tight. He'd somehow calmed himself, even as the ship rolled another few degrees. As though he'd resigned himself to her fate.
"Go now," he pleaded. "Warn your passengers. And then get yourself to a boat. It's your only hope."
"But-but what about you?"
He drew me in his arms and I felt safe. Stronger. "You are my hope...and I won't lose you, Ellie. I won't." His mouth trembled as he said it, but his resolve was firm. Contagious. Even I believed him. He kissed me, hard. Then suddenly he was gone. Running for the stairs to the engine room, running toward the flooding hold of a sinking ship.
And I never saw him again.
Ellen Hardy, aka Ellie Ryan, is a young woman who has known suffering and loss. Her life story has taken numerous unexpected twists and turns, leading her toward a future she never would have imagined for herself. Never would she have imagined that her great-aunt Geraldine would have forced her to take on a position as a lowly stewardess aboard the great ship Empress of Ireland. More unlikely still was the fact that she would come to enjoy her work aboard the ship, to forge friendships and find and hone new skills, to learn to take pride in her work. And to fall in love. But these things all happened. And then, the unthinkable also happened: the Empress of Ireland sank.
As this story begins, Ellen is one of only a few hundred survivors of this terrible tragedy. Struggling to comprehend the magnitude of what has transpired and fearing that her beloved Jim is dead, she returns to Aunt Geraldine's home in Liverpool just in time for her great-aunt's funeral. With Aunt Geraldine gone, Ellen finds herself lost in her grief and guilt and shame. When a relentless reporter turns up at her door, she refuses to discuss her ordeal with him. But Wyatt Steele has somehow gotten hold of Jim's journal and, in her desperation for answers, Ellen agrees to tell her story in exchange for the journal. Once again, however, things take a surprising turn as Ellen recounts the events leading up to that fateful night and relives the ship's sinking. Somehow, in the telling of the tale, she finds a sense of release. She also finds her feelings toward Wyatt Steele changing. And when Mr. Steele unravels more of her story, she finds in him an ally in a new quest. Suddenly, while she tries to hold on to the hope that Jim is still alive, Ellen also finds the strength to face the demons of her past and to forge ahead into a future of her own making.
As in her earlier works of historical fiction for young adult readers, Caroline Pignat has brought history vividly to life in the telling of this tale. Now, one hundred years after this horrific disaster at sea, Pignat had crafted a compelling account of the Empress of Ireland's final voyage. She has painted a detailed portrait of life aboard the ship, the swift and sudden onset of disaster and the unimaginable chaos that followed. But perhaps the story's greatest strength is in the manner in which it is told. Ellen relays the story after the fact, revealing only portions of the story at a time. In this way, the event is more accurately situated in the context of that time period. Readers get a better sense of how this event fit into the realities of that time and the fact that, although it made news headlines and it irreparably altered the lives of those who were directly affected by it, life went on uninterrupted. Nor was the sinking of the Empress of Ireland the end of Ellen's story. As Ellen's story gradually unfolds, Pignat brilliantly evokes many other aspects of life at that time and gives readers an intriguing look at society just as the Great War was ready to break out in Europe. The book, therefore, succeeds in ultimately sharing the story of Ellen's life while also creating a nuanced snapshot of the time.
Also true to form, the author has created an unforgettable protagonist. Ellen's maturation is credible and satisfying, and despite the fact that she faces a staggering number of trials, the book never falters or feels too weighty. While the ending could have been predictable, enough happens before we get there to raise questions and create some uncertainty around the question of where everything will ultimately lead. The story is well-paced, well-plotted and skilfully-told, in prose that is elegant and lyrical. It is first and foremost a breathtaking fictional account that will thoroughly immerse readers in Ellen's world. They will likely then be surprised to discover how much they have learned in the process.
Lisa Doucet is Co-Manager of Woozles Children's Bookstore in Halifax, NS.
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- May 30, 2014.
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