March 20, 2012

Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic, Jamie Laidlaw, Crossing the Atlantic, 1912

by Hugh Brewster
Scholastic Canada
195 pp.
Ages 9-13

Often the voices of the young are rarely heard when major current events occur.  Children and young teens are "protected" by adults who negate their comments, minimize their value or, worse, ignore them completely.  However, as Hugh Brewster demonstrates in Deadly Voyage, the observations and assessments of young Jamie Laidlaw provide a different perspective on the Titanic and its sinking, and perhaps a more accurate one.

Jamie Laidlaw, 14, has been living in England with his parents for the past two years, by virtue of his father's job with the Imperial Bank.  Now, they are returning home to Montreal, with his mom's maid, Rosalie, and their Airedale terrier, Max.  Boarding the RMS Titanic on April 10, 1912 at Southampton, his parents make the acquaintance of numerous wealthy patrons, including Major Peuchen, Mr. Molson (of brewery and banking fame), and Mr. and Mrs. Fortune and their older children from Winnipeg.  Jamie, on the other hand, makes the acquaintance of several passengers who will disembark at Ireland, including eleven-year-old Jack Odell.  As boys will be, Jamie and Jack explore throughout the ship, providing a first-hand account of the design and opulence of the Titanic, from third-class to first-class accommodations, to the different dining rooms, the pool, the Turkish baths, the squash courts and the fully-outfitted gymnasium, and even to the Marconi room from which wireless messages are amazingly sent.  After Jack's departure, Jamie makes a new friend over the animal kennels where Max is being housed.  Johnnie Ryerson is an American boy (with a pet rat he's stowed away on board) who is returning to the States with his family for the funeral of his oldest brother.  Johnnie's curiosity gets the two boys in trouble with their families, as they entertain themselves with some of the Titanic's distractions and pursuing the runaway rat.

When the ship hits the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, Jamie's youthful perspective, even after having to put on his life jacket, watching young men kick a chunk of ice around like a soccer ball, is to think, "But imagine this happening to a brand new ship!  What bad luck!" (pg. 78)  However, his optimism flags after watching the few lifeboats get loaded with passengers and observing the courage and cowardice evident amongst the passengers and crew.  While his mother wants him to board a lifeboat, Jamie insists on staying behind to look after his father.  (Johnnie, however, is forced by his father to join his mother and sisters on a lifeboat, a decision that will haunt Johnnie forever.)  Left on the ship with his father, Jamie seems to come-of-age, standing shoulder to shoulder with men to prevent others from clambering into the lifeboats, helping to release another lifeboat, and ultimately, as "every man for himself", plunging himself into a huge wave to get clear of the sinking ship.

Hugh Brewster, whose award-winning non-fiction and fiction emphasize key historical events in Canada's past, demonstrates how to take a well-recorded subject (i.e., the sinking of the Titanic) and see it from a different and fresh perspective.  By giving young Jamie a voice, as he grows from a boy to a young man, and later as a grandfather looking back at the events, Deadly Voyage epitomizes the experiences of the Titanic passengers and others affected by the tragedy.  Coupled with the historical notes, glossary, and photographs, Deadly Voyage provides a comprehensive fictional non-fiction exposé of the Titanic's sinking, which only a seasoned writer such as Hugh Brewster could have produced.

Look for additional news about Titanic presentations and book lists in the next week, all in preparation for commemorating, on April 15, 2012, the 100th anniversary of its sinking.

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