Monday, April 16, 2012

How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, by Frances Wilson- Review

Ever have a really bad day where, say, you call someone names at work and maybe back into someones car on the way out of the grocery parking lot and then, I don't know, cut a thumb off while cooking dinner?  Well next time this happens you can take comfort in the thought that it could have been much worse.  You could be J. Bruce Ismay, and spend your life known as the man who jumped on a lifeboat as the Titanic was sinking.  While hundreds of women and children were still on board.  Oh right, and he was a sort of owner of the boat.

See? It could totally be worse.

I lucked into this book at the Ontario Book Blogger gathering back in late October/early November.  There were these gift bags filled with a random assortment of books, and by some act of luck I ended up with a bunch of YA and one historical biography.   And not just any historical biography but a super interesting one about a topic I've always been fascinated by- the Titanic.

It's interesting to me, that in all the many, many, Titanic books nobody has ever before looked exclusively at the reviled Ismay.  He's been turned into one of those caricatures of thoughtless, wealthy, self-serving villains on par with Marie Antoinette and the "let them eat cake!" myth, and this is the first time I've seen someone sit down and actually look at him and his actions in the light of facts instead of emotion.

It was a fascinating biography and expose´ on many levels.  Without a doubt Ismay was a socially awkward man with many failings, but he was far from the only man to get on a lifeboat that night.  Nor did he actually perpetrate any of the heinous actions that happened from various lifeboat members over the course of that night.  Like Lord and Lady Duff Gordon who commandeered the first life boat for them and their staff plus some crew, leaving in a boat with room for a large number of other people, and who were rumoured to have paid the crew not to return to pick any of the survivors out of the freezing waters.  There was in fact even another 1st class male passenger who got in Collapsible C with Ismay as it launched.  So why was Ismay so maligned?  Was it because of his sort of owner status as the heir to the White Star line (even though he'd already sold it to J.P. Morgan, and was just the acting president)?

Wilson digs into the mysteries surrounding the accident and the 25 unhappy years Ismay lived through after, in a thoroughly engrossing manner.  Highlighting the actions of supposed heroes and villains alike in a way where the line becomes thoroughly blurry.  By the end of the book it seems a miracle anyone survived or that any of the survivors were able to look each other in the eye afterwards.  Anyone who's lived through a serious tornado warning, car crash or other disaster will immediately identify.  It's impossible to know how you'll act in a crisis until you have to do it, and lets face it, most of us aren't up to the task.  And although many heroes of that fateful night did a wonderful job, everyone did things that seemed in bad judgement when looked upon on dry land later.

My only complaint about the book, which was relatively small, was Wilson's use of a Joseph Conrad's story of Lord Jim.  She goes to great lengths to compare the story to Ismay's life, and I mean great lengths as in she even dedicates a chapter to a small biography on Conrad, but I never really got the point.  The comparison seemed to be her hypothesis for the whole book, but somehow there never seemed to a be a punch line.  It left me a bit mystified.  Also, although I love Conrad's work (Heart of Darkness got me through a hospital visit while suffering through a kidney infection in my early 20's, 2 provinces away from any family members), his biography and the details of the Lord Jim story were very out of context for me, and thus kind of boring.  I wanted stuff about Ismay, what did I care about a fictional character's moral plights?

Conrad comparisons aside, this was a fascinating read, definitely one to add to your list if your looking for a Titanic book that's not about the same old things.

How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, by Frances Wilson
Published by Harper, October 11 2011
My copy received at the Ontario Book Blogger gathering
Buy How to Survive the Titanic on Amazon