This was a fascinating book, and I’m pleased to have it be my 100th of the year. It contains two survivor stories – Col. Archibald Gracie’s extensive one, and the much shorter, “Sinking of the S.S. Titanic” by Jack Thayer.
Colonel Gracie’s story takes up most of the book. Not only does he give a detailed account of his own experience (he went down with the ship, but made his way to the overturned collapsible lifeboat on which he and several others were able to stand throughout the night until rescued), but he also put together a thorough sampling of other testimony from both the British and American inquiries.
All together, I felt as though I got an intimate look at what happened that night, and also about the mindset of many passengers and crew, and the era in general. I think the most interesting part – aside from learning about the actual events – was seeing so plainly the biases and predjudices of some of the people who survived the disaster. A great deal was made about how many persons from each class (first, second and third) were saved (this seemed important to many people at the time, with the inference being that some people didn’t consider the lives of the third class passengers as “important” as those in the upper classes). It was also disturbing to note the way many people from foreign countries were viewed in a less-than-favourable light (even Americans seemed to be viewed as “foreigners” by some of the British passengers and crew). There was also a lot about the actions of Bruce Ismay that night, and whether or not he had a moral obligation to go down with the ship. There were tales of heroism, too, though, so I’d say the story was both disturbing and uplifting in about equal parts, and most definitely a glimpse of that era in history.
Another thing that I really enjoyed was seeing where filmmakers (both Cameron and Baker/Lord) got their inspiration. Gracie’s account contained quotes and stories from actual passengers, some of whom are portrayed in the films, and their testimony here (or what was described of the actions of people who did not survive) was obviously a huge source of material. What I found even more interesting, though, were the little details about anonymous people which I spotted as having been incorporated into the films in various ways. For example, there is a very brief mention of a “male passenger carrying a baby” on one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship; I’m guessing this line was the inspiration for Hockley’s actions in the Cameron film.
There were parts of Gracie’s account that were repetetive and a bit tedious (some of the “duplicate” lifeboat accounts), but it was worth it to wade through them for the wonderful bits of information contained there.
Thayer was only 17 at the time of the disaster, and he, too, went down with the ship and ended up on the same overtuned collapsible. His account is very brief – not many more than a dozen pages long – but it was no less powerful than Gracie’s in many ways. Thayer is particularly eloquent in expressing his feelings about what the disaster meant to society:
It seems to me the disaster about to occur was the event, which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a rapid pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction, and happiness.
Today, the individual has to be contented with rapidity of motion, nervous emotion, and economic insecurity. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.
A fascinating book. I’m looking forward to the other collection of survivor stories I’ve got waiting for me to read. 10/10