Sunday, September 30, 2012

Titanic: voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

I grew up in the Land of 10,000 Frozen Lakes. In Minnesota, it oozes cold. I thought I KNEW cold. But I found out I didn't when I decided to jump off a sailboat into Lake Superior.  Whooee, I was so unprepared for air whooshing out of my lungs when I hit the water. Imagine a big block of ice being dropped onto your chest. The water temperature was in the 50's and my teeth were chattering and blue within a short amount of time. Thank goodness I had a life jacket on. The coldness was paralyzing. That is why I cannot imagine being submerged in 28 degree water for HOURS and surviving with no limbs amputated from exposure. Yet unbelievably, many survivors of the Titanic did just that in this page-turning nonfiction account of the sinking of the Titanic. Their voices are powerful and dramatic in this description of the lucky few who survived this disaster.

When I first started this book I thought... argh... I'm never going to be able to keep track of all these people. Don't let this trip you into not reading it. You don't really need to keep track of everyone. Think of it as one collective voice that moves the storyline forward. So many people from the stewards to the passengers are heroes in this tragedy. The story is a powerful comment on the culture and class structure of that time, not to mention the overconfidence of those in charge of the ship, and lack of understanding of the seriousness of the accident after they hit the iceberg. Many crew members and staff sacrificed their lives in order to save others and even though some were responsible for the errors they were noble in their efforts to save the ship and others in the end. It just made the fate of those on board even more tragic. So many good people. So many collective mistakes.

The author doesn't dramatize the text with her voice; instead, she presents the facts in such a way that they speak for themselves. She also uses a variety of people on the ship which gives different viewpoints of the event. That's why you can't worry about all the different characters in the story. This variety of peoples' perspectives shows how the disaster impacted people in different ways. For instance, in first class people couldn't tell that there was an accident; in second class, they felt a bump but it wasn't violent enough to toss a person on the floor; and in third class, a noise was heard and water was rapidly seeping into the cabins so people knew it was serious. The different viewpoints makes for a unique and rich narrative that allows the reader an omniscient view of unfolding events.

The book not only has firsthand accounts, but gives interesting details and primary documents that are inserted throughout chapters. Some inserts are original letters that use the language of the time while others are original photos; all add to a historical feel that help draw the reader into the story. In addition, there are blurbs that give the historical context as to why there weren't enough lifeboats or the reason the special watertight doors failed or the testimonies of different survivors. The design and chronological layout of the book is brilliant with answers to questions I had not even thought about; plus, the appendices and facts about discovering the Titanic in 1985, and the price one can get today for a Titanic relic such as a life belt make for good stuff.

I was amazed reading about the firsthand accounts of how many men went down with the ship so that the women and children could be saved. What is truly incredible is that they didn't storm the lifeboats but insisted that the women go. They knew there weren't enough boats but did not panic. It is quite a comment on society at that time as to what actions were considered noble and honorable. For me, it was heroic and sacrificial adding to the poignancy of tragic loss. Approximately 1500 people died, and 80% of them were men. Seventy-five percent of the women and 55% of the children were saved. The biggest loss was with third class passengers and there were several reasons for this such as not knowing English, not knowing how to get to the deck and the steward running out of time as he scurried people out of the ship's bowels, and passengers staying in their cabins waiting for instructions that never came when they should have evacuated.

There were so many things that went wrong on the Titanic from the Captain driving too fast and not paying attention to iceberg warnings, to the wireless operators not knowing the seriousness of the situation, to the disorganization of people evacuating on lifeboats, to a nearby ship (10-20 miles away) not responding to the rocket distress signals launched by the Titanic, to the lifeboat operators not going back for survivors fast enough and passengers heedlessly drowning from hypothermia. The list of mishaps is so unbelievable it is like pushing a small snowball down a hill and watching it build into a giganto ball that mows down everything in its path.

I was a little confused at first with the voice of Frank Browne because he is 17-years-old and boards the Titanic at Belfast. He is actually studying to be a Jesuit Priest and it would have been helpful if this had been stated right away. I'm thinking he's a high school kid who is living at home with his parents and not at a seminary school. The Titanic sailed from Belfast to South Hampton and Frank is only sailing this portion. He meets an American couple who offer to pay his passage to New York. He wires the priests asking for permission to go and they say, "No." So he doesn't. He is in the book because he took a bunch of awesome photos and because he is a symbol of fate or luck. He was so close to sailing on that fateful ship. It seems that many people who did survive were lucky like Frank and the author hammers this point home with the different voices explaining their experiences.

I remembering  skipping 6 blocks to elementary school in January with partially wet hair that would freeze into icicles and clink together like wind chimes. Kind of cool and weird. I know. This book makes me think of my icicle wind chimes. Kind of cool and weird.  In a mesmerizing way. I bought this book because it has been showing up on Newbery 2013 lists on Goodreads. I can see why. A ringer, for sure.

Reading Level 7.6
5 out of 5 Smileys

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