Monday, April 9, 2012

The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic

In the late hours of April 14th, 1912, the steamship RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. At 2:20am on the morning of the 15th, the ship sank into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the ship’s first and final voyage. Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world. Some of the wealthiest and most famous people of the day were passengers. The ship was said to be “unsinkable;” over 1,500 souls went down with her that night. The disaster made headlines all around the world. One hundred years later, we’re still talking about it.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, 2005, Henry Holt and Co., originally published in 1955 (Nonfiction/ 20th Century History/ Maritime Disasters). 

The strict divisions between first class and third, the record-breaking size of the ocean liner, the old-fashioned heroism of “women and children first,” the ease by which the entire disaster could have been avoided, the captain going down with the ship and the band playing ‘til the very end—these details have made the sinking of the Titanic an event that is impossible to forget. In 1955, Walter Lord published the first fully researched account of the events of that fateful night. Lord supplies a wealth of information about the crew, the passengers, the construction of the ship, and all its distinct luxuries. He carefully traces the timeline that ends in tragedy. He focuses on the rigid class system that kept the steerage passengers locked below decks when the ship struck the iceberg, and on the outdated emergency standards that kept the number of lifeboats to a minimum and resulted in the deaths of more than half the people on board. Lord’s attention to detail is extraordinary—no passenger’s experience is too small to explore and record and shed light on the disaster. Nearly sixty years after its original publication, A Night to Remember is still the definitive account of the Titanic.

Building the Titanic: An Epic Tale of the Creation of History’s Most Famous Ocean Liner by Rod Green, 2005, Reader’s Digest Books (Nonfiction/ 20th Century History/ Shipbuilding). 

882 feet long, 175 feet high, weighing 46,428 tons—Titanic was the largest moving man-made object of the day. Staterooms with private promenades, squash courts, a Turkish bath, a Parisian cafĂ©—Titanic was the most luxurious ship ever built. In that respect, the White Star Line accomplished its goal of building the largest and most impressive sea-going vessel to date. Of course, the ship sinking on its maiden voyage with a loss of 1,500 people was not part of the plan. Building the Titanic is the story of the creation of the great ship. Author Rod Green explores the motives of the ship’s owners (profits and status), the lives of the men who worked in the shipyards (there were 254 recorded accidents during the building of the Titanic; eight men died), and every detail of its construction from the delivery of 45,000 table napkins to the production of a new massive dry dock to hold the ship while it was being built. Rare photographs taken by passengers during the ill-fated voyage and detailed construction plans complete this portrait of Titanic and prove that the ship was mightily impressive indeed, and well deserving of the attention she received even from her very beginning.

The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert D. Ballard, 1995, Orion Books, originally published 1987 (Nonfiction/ Deep Sea Exploration/ Science Writing). 

Public fascination with Titanic reached a new peak in 1985, when Dr. Robert Ballard and his American-French expedition finally found the wreck 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic. The ship lies in two pieces, bow and stern, with a scattered debris field that contains haunting signs of life and death—plates, combs, mirrors, boots—all carefully documented by Ballard’s underwater submersibles. By juxtaposing images of Titanic in all her glory with images from Titanic’s watery grave, Ballard shows how vulnerable the ship really was—and still is. In 2004 Ballard visited the wreckage again and published Return to the Titanic with all-new high-quality images and an impassioned plea for preservation of the site. A final book, 2008’s Titanic: The Last Great Images, is an attempt to document the wreck before it is gone forever, picked away by the ravages of time and even more so by scavengers who seek to get rich from Titanic’s ruin and aren’t so bothered if their submersible scrapes a railing or removes an artifact. Ballard’s case for conservation is a strong one; the long search for Titanic’s resting place is a riveting tale of perseverance and scientific ingenuity; the ghostly images of the sunken ship are mesmerizing.

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allen Wolf, 2011, Candlewick Press (Young Adult Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Novels in Verse). 

Everyone knows how the story ends—with a lost ship and a few boatloads of survivors in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. But the stories of the people on the Titanic continue to fascinate and resonate. Author Allen Wolf tells two dozen of those stories in The Watch That Ends the Night, a novel-in-verse featuring the voices of millionaire John Jacob Astor, wireless operator Harold Bride, immigrant Olaus Abelseth, third-class refugee Jamila, the woman who became known as “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” the ship’s baker, the violinist, an on-board rat, and many others—including the iceberg itself. Wolf mixes fact and fiction for a work that is epic in scope, from the musings of doomed Captain Smith to the babblings of near-infant Lolo Navratil. Cementing the story is the occasional report from undertaker John Snow, who helps to harvest the bodies from the sea days after the disaster. Though mournful at times, The Watch That Ends the Night has its fair share of brave deeds and meaningful connections. With over thirty pages of biographies and resources, this is an impressive work that adds a crucial human touch to the facts and statistics that make up the Titanic’s remarkable history.

Fateful by Claudia Gray, 2011, HarperTeen Books (Young Adult Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy). 

Fateful is a romance about werewolves on the Titanic. That’s right: werewolves on the Titanic. Preposterous? Of course. Fun? Absolutely. Tess Davies is a maid for the snobbish Lisle family, and she’s finally had enough. She’s taking this opportunity to break free: when Titanic reaches New York, Tess will strike out on her own. But a seemingly chance encounter with two men—one sinister, one handsome—has Tess looking over her shoulder as she boards the mighty ship. Sure enough, the two strangers are on board and on the prowl. Mikhail is a dangerous werewolf representing the Brotherhood, a powerful paranormal faction. Alec is also a (very wealthy and attractive first class) werewolf, but he’s clinging to his sense of humanity and desperate to do no harm. Mikhail is after Alec’s fortune but there’s something else on Titanic—something that belongs to the Lisle family—and Mikhail’s not going to let some gutsy little maidservant stand in his way. As Tess is drawn deeper in the werewolves’ affairs, the ship has its own fateful encounter with an iceberg that will foil the best-laid plans of wolf and maid. Melodramatic, with a steamy romance and plenty of action, Fateful is an entirely worthwhile guilty pleasure.

Passage by Connie Willis, 2001, Bantam Books (Science Fiction). 

Connie Willis is an acclaimed science fiction writer who happens to love history. Her Hugo- and Nebula-winning novel Doomsday Book sends a graduate student back in time to the Dark Ages; her comic gem To Say Nothing of the Dog mixes the Victorian Era with World War II. In Passage, Dr. Joanna Lander is a psychologist researching near-death experiences (or NDEs). She’s developed a drug that can stimulate the experience and is working with neurologist Richard Wright on a theory that NDEs are actually a survival mechanism. But when Joanna goes under herself in a stimulated NDE, what she finds is completely unexpected—it’s the Titanic, and neither Joanna nor Richard have any idea what it means. But Willis drops plenty of hints, all the while distracting her protagonists with chance meetings, half-forgotten conversations, and characters as varied as a smart little girl with a severe heart condition and a swarmy fellow doctor who wants to use their research to promote his own career. As Joanna explores her strange experience farther and farther, the tension and the mystery build to a fever pitch—and then there’s the intense plot twist just before the ending. Suspenseful and powerful, reading Passage is an unforgettable experience.

Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel, 2003, W.W. Norton and Co. (Nonfiction/ Social History/ Cultural History). 

Why are we so fascinated by the Titanic? Is it the hubris of its era, the excessive luxury coupled with the subpar safety measures? Is it all the “what ifs” that could have prevented the disaster, from the ignored ice warnings to the nearby ship that could have saved every soul on board had it ventured to find out what was going on? Is it the striking class differences that meant Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon set sail in a lifeboat built for forty with only two other passengers and twelve crewmen to row them, while hundreds of third class passengers were kept below decks until the last minute? Author Stephen Biel explores the cultural history of the Titanic, from its effect on the suffrage movement (the old standby of “women and children first” meant that men were made into easy heroes who stood for strength and power while the women survivors were weaklings who needed protection) to the commercialization of the disaster in the form of books (including his own), movies, and exhibitions. He touches on all of Titanic’s roles throughout history:  status symbol, news sensation, metaphor, commodity, and entertainment. Regardless of how much time goes by, Titanic will always give us something to talk about.

The Night Lives On by Walter Lord, 1987, Avon Books (Nonfiction/ 20th Century History Shipwrecks).

Walter Lord remained devoted to the story of the Titanic after writing his groundbreaking account of the disaster A Night to Remember in 1955. When the wreckage was discovered in 1985, Lord couldn’t resist another rumination on the great ship’s lasting legacy. In The Night Lives On, Lord delves deeper into mysteries and myths that have accumulated over the decades. He sheds light on the rumor that a crewman shot into a crowd of passengers swarming around the last of the lifeboats. He ponders the pride and arrogance of the Edwardian age that is so frustrating to modern minds in the light of all the “what ifs” that could have changed the course of Titanic’s history. He pours over the records for eyewitness accounts of the ship splitting in two and the band playing ‘til the end. He contrasts the reactions of the ships Carpathia and Californian—the former rushed to Titanic’s aid but was over fifty miles away; the later passively puzzled over strange lights and rockets in the night from a distance of just fifteen miles or so. As it asks new questions, rights wrongs, and sets the record straight, The Night Lives On is another detailed, engrossing account of all things Titanic.