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.

House of Velvet and Glass

Do those who miraculously miss the boat that sinks, the plane that crashes, the train that goes off the rails, feel a sense of relief – or guilt? Have they changed their destiny – or was the outcome unavoidable? Katherine Howe examines the consequences and controls of fate in her historical novel The House of Velvet and Glass.

Using the sinking of the Titanic as her catalyst, Howe weaves historical fiction into the lives of the Allston family – those who sank with the ship and those left behind. Helen, and her daughter Eulah, died at sea on the Titanic en route back to Boston from a successful European campaign to find a husband for her daughter. Helen’s husband, a former seaman and now successful businessman, remained behind with Sibyl and her brother, Harley.

Following her mother’s interest in séances, Sibyl, the unmarried eldest child, visits a medium, hoping to contact her dead mother. She comes away with a mysterious scrying glass in a velvet box; under the influence of opiates, Sibyl can see events in the glass. As she looks for her mother and sister within the glass’ misty aura, she finds instead a future catastrophe.

As the chapters move back and forth, following each member of the family at different times and places, the focus of the story is a little hazy, and you may wonder where it is going.  Although the present is set at the aftermath of the Titanic, with Sibyl’s search for solace, the plot has more to offer than just another Titanic story.

Howe revisits the patriarch’s youthful adventures in Shanghai that foreshadow Sibyl’s talents and a surprise solution at the end to the mystery of their paranormal inclinations.  Helen’s and Eulah’s fateful voyage also become part of the action with descriptions of passengers and shipboard romance. Harley, the youngest and only son, recently expelled from his senior year at Harvard, brings Dovie, his ethereal lover into the plot as well as Benton, his professor and Sibyl’s love interest – both catalysts who help Sibyl realize her hidden talents.

Howe weaves traces of the supernatural into historical events – similar to how she used New England history in her first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. For Downton Abbey fans, the story echoes the nineteenth century era of  World War I with its fashion and emerging technological advances.

An ominous clock ticks away throughout the narrative, marking the lives of the characters, bringing them closer to the inevitable, and Howe poses some philosophical questions about chance, fate, and how choices can affect both.

A clever mix of mystery, romance, history, and the supernatural…if you enjoyed Howe’s first book, you will like this one too.  I did.

The Titanic

At 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the British ocean liner Titanic sank into the North Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland, Canada, after colliding with an iceberg around midnight.

After seeing a local production of the Broadway musical Titanic, and noting its difference to the extravagant film that has recently been re-released in 3D, I wondered about the ship’s real history.

The live musical boasts that all characters are based on actual passengers and crew. Alas, no love story between the first-class Rose and her lower deck artist actually happened.
Key characters mirrored their real-life counterparts’ experiences. The wealthy Macy’s elder couple – Isador and Ida Straus did go down with the ship – on deck chairs, not in bed. And the ship’s owner, Ismay, really did jump into a lifeboat with women and children.

At the end of the production, a reel of lingering facts assaults the audience, noting how more could have been saved:

  • The lifeboat drill was never practiced with the passengers.
  • Most of the lifeboats were not full: one with a capacity for 65, had only 24 people in it; another lifeboat had only 12 people, despite a capacity for 40.
  • The Californian was the closest ship for rescue, but did not receive the Titanic’s distress call because its wireless operator had gone to bed.

Nick Ochwar of the Los Angeles Times summarizes 10 Titanic Books That Will Fascinate for more information on what really happened. But suggests…

“If you read only one book, however, let it be “Titanic, First Accounts” (Penguin, $16 paper), in which editor Tim Maltin gathers classic inquiries and early testimonies from survivors. It is a stunning record of firsthand stories and early reports. “The ship was gradually turning on her nose — just like a duck does that goes down for a dive,” recalls radio operator Harold S. Bride. “I had only one thing on my mind — to get away from the suction.” The book is full of such accounts, as chilling to read today as the North Atlantic waters were on that fateful night.”