CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 16 . . . . April 13, 2001
James took one lingering look at the people he was leaving behind. The young woman with the infant, like most of them, had stubbornly refused to go in the lifeboat. Instead, she had chosen to remain behind and take her chances perched in the swaying mast.The loss of innocent lives, especially through the foolishness of those in charge, often prompts guilt, self-examination, then re-examination in the lucky survivors. No wonder, then, that James T. Moffat, survivor of the shipwrecked Valencia, can't let go of his terrifying experience. He was just 13 when it happened, but the details remain etched in his memory, kept close at hand like the yellowed clippings in the scrapbook he now shows his great-grandchild. From these two sources emerges a tale of a voyage doomed by "dead reckoning," a practice that relies as much on instinct as on depth soundings and measurements of boat, wind, and current speeds.
Dead Reckoning is a compelling account, vivid with detail to anchor the reader to place and time. Author Julie Burtinshaw is strong on fact and straightforward narrative. She supplies abundant trivia of the type young people devour, on the below-decks workings of the old steamships, travel aboard ship (down to a dinner menu) and life in the early 1900s. West Coast readers, especially, will appreciate the run of familiar names: WestCoast Trail, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Pachena Point, Carmanah Point. Burtinshaw gives readers this mercifully vicarious experience through James' dreams, his thoughts and intense, realistic description. The supernatural elements--the dreams (especially the one revealing San Francisco's earthquake), the strange heat radiating from the Valencia's photo, the great-grandchild's ghost-ship visions--are extraneous to the telling; the blow-by-blow recounting of the sinking makes the chronicle haunting enough.
The novel, Burtinshaw's first, is more account than story. Because James' survival and the fate of the ship are explicit from the first few pages, readers feel little suspense until halfway through the book. Once the storm begins, tension builds: how long will the ship last? James' character, calm and level-headed almost from start to finish, does not change over the admittedly short period. Perhaps for this reason, we don't feel the terror that must have seized the ill-fated passengers. The very interesting Drs. Moffat appear only briefly, as do some other intriguing characters. Sub-plots, too, are merely hinted at: James' desire to be part of a normal family, the bank robber's ominous presence, Joe Sigalis' courage and eagerness to befriend the boys, James' premonitions--they all hold unexploited promise.
James' role in the ship's struggle with the sea is more observer than player. Is this a nod to real life? As James himself says, "Why would [anyone] listen to the ramblings of a 13-yr-old boy who had never been to sea before and whose only evidence of disaster was a half-remembered dream?" He does save his friend Alexander from drowning, but the book contains little of the fast-paced heroism that attracts readers in search of adventure. His passiveness contributes to a sense that this is Valencia's, rather than James', story.
Does the fact that the real story is of a ship than of a boy mark it as a bad book? Absolutely not. A more conventional approach to plot and character would ensure a wider following. Despite some shortcomings, Burtinshaw's re-enactment of the steamship's final voyage--and the plight of its miserable passengers--is entirely successful in eliciting the pathos such tragedy deserves. The book will no doubt inspire more than a few Vancouver Island dwellers to seek out the wreck of the steamship Valencia.
Cora Lee is a writer and editor living in Vancouver, BC. She is also the BC Regional Officer for the Canadian Children's Book Center.
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