Have you ever gone through reading phases where you end up reading the same type of book over and over until you’ve gotten your fill for the rest of the year? Well, I’ve been reading a lot of books about disasters at sea lately. First it was A Brilliant Night of Stars and Ice by Rebecca Connolly, a version of the Titanic story told through the perspectives of third-class passenger Kate Connolly and Captain Rostron, the man who led the rescue ship Carpathia. Then it was The Glass Ocean by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White. They tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania through the eyes of a former con artist, a conflicted socialite, and the woman researching their connection in present-day. Finally, today it was Ghost Liners by Robert D. Ballard, which while very similar to the books above, is one I’d never get sick of reading. It’s fitting, then, that it’s the subject for today’s post.
With school ramping up again after a two-month break, I knew that some of the Ultimate Reading Challenge tasks I’d been hoping to start would now likely have to wait until winter break. In order to meet my one-challenge-a-month goal, however, I consoled myself with one of the easier challenges of re-reading a book I loved as a child. I say easier, but that didn’t mean that finding the right book for this post was simple. Most of the books I loved as a child already have blog posts to their name! Luckily, my sudden disasters-at-sea phase inadvertently came to my rescue by prompting me to go looking for a non-fiction book on the subject which I knew I enjoyed when I was younger. When I finally did find said book, the jolt of excitement I felt just by seeing the cover convinced me that it was the perfect choice for this challenge.
Challenge: Re-Read a Book You Loved As A Child
Ghost Liners by Robert D. Ballard:
As an eight-year-old at the height of my Titanic phase, there wasn’t a single book about the disaster that I hadn’t already checked out from the children’s department at my local library. Or so I thought. Slightly off to the side of the Titanic section was a book about five well-known sinkings of passenger liners: The Titanic, the Empress of Ireland (sunk in only fourteen minutes on May 29th, 1914, following a collision with another ship), the Lusitania (the pride of the Cunard line, torpedoed on May 7th, 1915), the Britannic (one of the Titanic‘s “sister ships”, sunk after hitting a mine on November 21st, 1916), and the Andrea Doria (sunk on July 25th, 1956, following a collision with another ship). New to the idea that there had been other tragedies at sea, I eagerly looked for books about these other four ships, but with little available had no choice but to absorb all I could from Ghost Liners‘ hallowed pages. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the child survivors featured in each section, wondering if I would have made it to safety if our roles were reversed. My friends, however, did not share the same curiosity. I can clearly remember one friend laughing at the pictures of the wrecks and the possessions littering the ocean floor, as if there was somehow something funny about the subject matter. Not long after that, either out of embarrassment or because I thought it was “too young for me”, I stopped checking out Ghost Liners from the library. It barely crossed my mind after that, despite the impressions some of its featured ships would have on my life in the years that followed. Visiting an Empress of Ireland exhibit while on vacation one year was one of my summer highlights, and I ended up enjoying a book about it (Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat) so much that it currently sits on my bookshelf. That a similarly tragic disaster to the Titanic occurred just two years afterwards, in Canadian waters (the St. Lawrence) no less, was astounding to me, and it’s a shame that the beginning of the First World War just two months later has overshadowed it. The Lusitania was my introduction to the idea that the First World War wasn’t just fought on land, but also in the air, at sea, and on the home front. Warnings issued by the German Embassy in the U.S. informing then-neutral American passengers of the Lusitania that they would not be spared if they sailed through British waters on a British-owned ship brought home the sad fact that even civilians were subjected to the horrors of war. (In my young mind, the information I’d retained from Remembrance Day assemblies gave me the impression that battles were conducted very honourably between professional soldiers, and that the “rules” of this “gentleman’s war” were to be followed to a tee.) Similarly, the Britannic opened my eyes to the role of and heroics performed by medical professionals during the war (the Britannic was serving as a hospital ship at the time of her sinking) and the incredible medical advances that came out of the horrors of the battlefield. I was continuously amazed by the story of Violet Jessop, a stewardess who survived the sinkings of the Titanic and the Britannic, as well as a collision on their third “sister ship”, the Olympic. In fact, it was likely because of the off-hand reference in her story to the Olympic serving as a troop ship during the First World War that later inspired me to write a story about it (and the U-Boat it rammed and sunk) for a local story-writing contest. The information I’ve learned about these three disasters in particular has helped to foster my interests in early 20th century and maritime history, areas I’d like to explore careers in down the road.
So, after all that Ghost Liners meant to me in the past, does it still hold up? Absolutely! It greeted me like an old friend as I rediscovered the stories of these doomed ships. Since it’s meant for kids, each section in the book is relatively short, but it strikes a perfect balance of engaging the reader and giving away just enough information to prompt those who are interested to do further research. It was fascinating to hear Robert D. Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, ‘s personal thoughts about each wreck and the various challenges associated with exploring them. The Titanic‘s wreck is fairly accessible and well-preserved compared to the fishnet-covered, constantly shifting wreckage of some of the others mentioned in the book! Ghost Liners makes it clear that these disasters were just that: tragedies which claimed the lives of hundreds and thousands. We must keep those who lost their lives ever-present in our minds as we research the how and why, not allowing ourselves to be swept away by the facts and forget that these things happened to real people like us who lived and dreamed. I’d argue that this message is what makes it an important book for adults to read, too, not just their children.
I hope my deep-dive (pun intended) into these maritime disasters through Ghost Liners has proven interesting and perhaps taught you something new. I’ve realized through writing this post that I know more information about various sinkings-of-ships than I probably should, so if there’s a specific disaster at sea you’d like information about/book recommendations for, I’m happy to help! Land Beyond The Sea by Kevin Major (the S.S. Caribou, the Nova Scotia-Newfoundland ferry torpedoed in 1942 during the Battle of the St. Lawrence) and Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood (the sinking of the “Children’s Ship”. the S.S. City of Benares, which was torpedoed in 1940), both of which happen to be told in verse, are two of the first book suggestions that come to mind.
In the age of air travel, it’s hard to appreciate these disasters at sea for what they were. Until relatively recently in human history, there was simply no other way to cross oceans than by boat. Now, of course, we can cross the Atlantic by plane in just over seven hours, but in earlier days ocean voyages could take months! As technology advanced during the steam age, emerging shipping lines competed to build the biggest, fastest, and most luxurious ships- if they weren’t the best on the market, how else could they stay in business? Therefore tragedies grew more horrific as passenger populations increased. With communication technology still in its early stages during the early 20th century (when most of the disasters I’ve referenced occurred), ships in the vicinity of the one in distress would often be too slow to provide immediate assistance, or else wouldn’t receive a distress message in the first place. In fact, distress signals from the Titanic were almost never received by the Carpathia because their wireless operator was about to turn off his receiver and go to bed!
The point I’m trying to make here is that we have to understand the context of the time period these disasters at sea occurred during to get a better understanding of what they were. Today, our biggest disasters are acts of gun violence, natural disasters, and war crimes. These are quite different contextually than the disasters at sea featured in Ghost Liners and therefore should be viewed through a different lens. How would a researcher in the 22nd century put themselves in the shoes of a school shooting survivor, or the survivor of a bomb strike? If we can understand the setting and the context, we’ll be as close as we can get (without the assistance of time travel) to understanding what it must have felt like to stand on the slanted deck of a sinking ship in the early 20th century, fighting to get to a lifeboat and to safety.
On that note, I hope you enjoyed the post! Since school is keeping me on my toes I’ll likely be posting a little less often than I’d like to, but know that I’m still working away at the Ultimate Reading Challenge and can’t wait to share my next reads with you! 🙂