Friday, July 27, 2012

A dude who was REALLY into the Titanic

Just look at this guy.  Does he look like a classic nerd, or what?

I'm speaking with fondness here.  Keep in mind that I have nerdy tendencies.

This guy is Walter Lord, best known for his book A Night to Remember, which is "still considered a definitive resource on the Titanic," says Wikipedia.  It was one of the first Titanic books I read, and one of the ones I like best.  Here's the cover.
The back cover says that Lord became fascinated with the Titanic after riding on its sister ship, the Olympic, when he was a boy. By the time he was 10, he was reading all about the ship, and making drawings of it.  He went to college and got a job, but in his spare time, "with unflagging devotion," (according to the back cover of this book) he began tracking down and interviewing the survivors. He contacted and interviewed 60, and even became friends with some! That's shoeleather research!

How exciting that must have been, to talk with people who had been there, especially for a Titaniac like him.  To hear the stories from people who'd experienced the sinking must have been both fascinating and harrowing. 

The cool thing about this book is that it puts the reader in the shoes of the people on the ship.  Lord uses what critics called "literary pointillism" to bring together the experiences of the survivors he interviewed.  The story moves from place to place, from person to person, and tells about what happened all over the ship largely in their voices.  He doesn't add any additional elements, and is pretty restrained even about commenting on the meaning of the sinking.

I read the book twice this summer, once in my "gulping" reading style, getting so tied up that I could hardly put the book down.  I was a Titanic noob. I didn't even know the chronology of the events of that night.  I knew there was an iceberg and not enough lifeboats, but that's about it!  So the first time I read, it was just to find out about the Titanic.

And Lord's book has great pictures!  It was the first time I encountered photos of what it looked like on the deck of the ship
and met Captain Smith (on the right).

And saw the tiny lifeboats coming up to the Carpathia.

I won't say that reading this book gave me nightmares, because it didn't.  But lying in bed at night, I'd think about the traumatic stories I'd read. Cold water, panicked people, women leaving husbands and grown sons on the deck as they were lowered in a lifeboat . . . or standing with their children below decks with the rest of the third class while the water rises.

It kept me up a couple nights. 

Still, I read the book a second time. Why? Fascination with the traumatic?  Maybe.

Maybe because of that fascination/horror, I needed to think more about how different people reacted to the disaster. Did they believe the ship was unsinkable? How did they face having to leave it?  How did they face knowing they or their loved ones would die?  How did they react to the needs of other people?

And of course: What would I have done?

Lord's book really helps you imagine you ARE there because he shares the voices of the people on the ship.

Here are the voices of Mahala and Walter Douglas, brother and sister-in-law of our Cedar Rapids George Douglas:

"Walter you must come with me," begged Mrs. Walter D. Douglas.
"No," Mr. Douglas replied, turning away. "I just be a gentleman."
"Try and get off with Major Butt and Mr. Moore," came a final bit of wifely advice; "They are big, strong fellows and will surely make it."

And Ida Strauss:
Mrs. Isidor Strauss also refused to go:  "I've always stayed with my husband; so why should I leave him now?"

Lord occasionally tells someone's story, like the tale of Baker Charles Joughin, the last person off the Titanic:
" . . . he felt the stern beginning to drop under his feet--it was like taking an elevator.  As the sea closed over the stern, Joughin stepped off into the water.  He didn't even get his head wet.  He paddled off into the night, little bothered by the freezing water."

And the last minutes of the Titanic itself:
". . . slowly she began sliding under, moving at a steep slant.  As she glided down, she seemed to pick up speed.  When the sea closed over the flagstaff on her stern, she was moving fast enough to cause a slight gulp."

The book hasn't gone out of print since it was published in 1955.  I can see why.

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