March 23, 2012

That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1912

by Sarah Ellis
Scholastic Canada
170 pp.
Ages 8-13

"The Titanic lives on because it is the best of stories.  It has exotic luxury, arrogance, greed, mystery, heroism, self-sacrifice, romance, suspense, vibrant characters, the implacable forces of nature, the power and ingenuity of huge machines and, at its heart, a little empty space, a space just big enough for us." (Sarah Ellis, Historical Note, pg. 147-148)
Sarah Ellis' assessment of the intrigue surrounding the Titanic is absolutely correct, except for Dorothy Wilton, who (fictionally) had a space on the Titanic and wishes she hadn't.  In fact, she'd rather not talk about it at all.  So starts That Fatal Night, just weeks after the disaster, with twelve-year-old Dorothy Wilton having been sent home from her Halifax school for injuring a classmate, Irene Rudge. Dorothy had slapped Irene, but Irene probably sustained greater injuries when she fell back and hit her head.  Now the principal has sent Dorothy home for the remainder of the school year.  Miss Caughey, Dorothy's classroom teacher, gives her a blank notebook in which to write about what happened that spring, and visits Dorothy regularly to check her progress.

Dorothy is determined not to even think about what happened on the ship but does recollect her visit with her grandparents in England, from which she had been returning.  Her visit with her grandparents and Mrs. Hawkins, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Hawkins' children, Owen and Millie, had been a magical time for Dorothy.  Grandfather conducted life lessons using newspaper stories, while Grandmother, an early feminist, introduced Dorothy to their extraordinary friends, including Mrs. Bland, who under her nom de plume had written the popular children's book, The Railway Children.  Dorothy role-played with Millie and Owen, regularly putting on performances.  After such a grand time, returning to Canada with the finicky Miss Pugh, an employee of her father's bank who had gone to visit her aging father, was tedious.

While writing about her visit with her grandparents and thinking about her dreams and such, Dorothy starts to allow snippets of reminiscences: her room at home and the ship's cabin; her frightening dream of melting faces and her visit to Madame Tussaud's wax museum; the freedom and joy of her visit versus the perennial admonitions of Miss Pugh of all things inappropriate, unsuitable, outrageous and vulgar.  And we learn that Dorothy had never wanted Miss Pugh to die.  In fact, Dorothy blames herself for her chaperone's death.

When Dorothy pieces her recollections together, she recognizes, with hindsight, her confusion about her actions and her feelings ("But I have never been so lonely as I was in that lifeboat"; pg.  115), finally acknowledging the fact that there just had not been enough lifeboats for everyone and that many people drowned. Ultimately, Dorothy is able to stop chastizing herself ("I should have been more grateful but being grateful takes heart"; pg. 120) but it isn't until an unexpected visitor speaks with her that Dorothy is set free from her guilt and self-recriminations.

While Sarah Ellis, Governor General Award-winning author of Pick-Up Sticks (Groundwood, 1991) shares extraordinary notes and photographs about the Titanic and its installation in our history and recognizes all the drama that is associated with the great ship's sinking, she puts forth a florid alternative narrative here, one in which a survivor looks within herself in regards to the tragedy.   Dorothy sees her actions as short-comings and inappropriate, not wishing to share these.  Surprisingly, her sorrow is misdirected.  By allowing herself to make mistakes (illustrated when she is finally able to leave a smudge mark in her notebook, rather than tear the page out and rewrite it) and see that there can still be a happy ending (just as in Edward Lear's nonsense poem, The Jumblies, which she memorizes), Dorothy has developed into a thoughtful and insightful young lady with the promise of surviving much more than just a maritime disaster.

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The Jumblies and Other Nonsense Verses by Edward Lear can be read online or downloaded from Project Gutenberg at

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