The Lifeboat

What does it mean to be a survivor?

In Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat, the cruise ship Empress Alexandra sinks not long after the fatal Titanic and before the sinking of the Lusitania. The prologue eliminates the stress of wondering whether the main character, Grace Winter, survives; in the first few pages, she is in a courtroom, on trial for murder on the high seas.

As Grace records her “recollections” in a diary for her attorneys, she reveals her status as a woman in the early 1900s as well as her moral core. With her father’s death and subsequent loss of their fortune, the future looks grim for Grace. Her sister, Miranda, with no marriage prospects, takes a job as a governess, but Grace plots her own future with Henry, a wealthy banker – no matter that he is engaged to be married in a month. After she contrives to meet him, he falls in love with her, forsakes his fiancée, and books passage to Europe – where they can be secretly wed, without the disapproval of his mother. World War I is about to begin, and they book passage almost immediately to return to New York – but the ship sinks.

Henry bribes a crewman to take Grace onto the last lifeboat – and the story begins with Grace recounting the 21 days that she drifted on the ocean with a boat full of passengers.

Do you remember the writing prompt that had you choose who to save in the lifeboat? One version of the overpopulated boat has a medic who is unconscious, a little girl who has a disability, an old man who is on the brink of a major scientific discovery, an award-winning author, a crewman from the sunken ship, and a wealthy entrepreneur noted for his philanthropy. You must throw one overboard. The obvious choice might be the writer, unless you are one.

Although 40 passengers are in Rogan’s Lifeboat, she focuses the story around a small cluster, including a deacon of the church, a mother with a small child, an obstreporous Unsinkable Molly, a blustery colonel, three non-English speaking Italian women, a suspicious but experienced sailor, and Grace. Rogan details the physical horrors of their trial on the unrelenting sea, but their interactions, inner thoughts, alliances, and conspiracies may be more harrowing.

The Lifeboat is a riveting tale with a core ethical dilemma: what should you do to save yourself? Whether or not you get the symbolism and metaphors, the story is not what you expect.