What would you do if you were stranded on a boat with 39 fellow passengers from a shipwreck and then convicted of murder after being rescued?
Grace Winter is only twenty-two, both newly married and then quickly widowed, when the ship Empress Alexandria sinks with her husband on board in the Summer of 1914. He doesn’t survive, along with many others who don’t make it, but she ends up on Lifeboat 14 (thanks to her husband, Henry). It becomes her home for the next few weeks and she has to share it with other survivors who are as fearful, uncertain and desperate as her.
The boat suddenly represents a community which needs to make rash decisions about the next action to take, in order to stay alive. Since there are more survivors in the boat than space, it quickly dawns on everyone that some people will have to die by sacrificing themselves.
The story gets intriguing as Mr. Hardie, a man who was part of the original crew on the Empress Alexandria, takes initiative to be the boat’s captain. When one woman on board (Mrs. Grant) challenges his decisions and expresses her disapproval of the way he oversees rations, conflict and conspiracy rear their ugly heads. There are more women than men on the boat, so the dilemma might almost be about the battle between sexes at one point. The crew is forced to face the choice of either supporting Mr. Hardie or not. The result will make you squirm.
This novel is definitely in the ranks of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. It all comes down to who betrays who and the consequences of making choices in a tight situation. Does the crew benefit as a whole, based on their actions, or are they thinking only of themselves? When Mr. Hardie makes them draw straws to see who should jump overboard, there is the same eerie feeling that one gets when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.
Grace somehow manages to get roped into choosing between helping get rid of Mr. Hardie or refusing to listen to Mrs. Grant. Her decision ultimately leads her to the courtroom. We ride the waves with the characters as if we were Grace and witness what takes place on Lifeboat 14, as she retells the horrifying moments she experiences (physically, mentally and socially).
It really is a book to get you thinking and make you ask: “What would I have done?” Then make you sigh with relief as you exclaim: “Thank God it wasn’t me!”
I know I mentioned that this novel is one about human survival—on the same level as the likes of Golding and Jackson but while reading it, certain aspects of the story called to mind other titles that I have read a while back. The parts where Grace tells us about the violent wind and waves brings back images from the scenes of The Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning. In that novel, there is a description of when the boat is trapped on the water during a violent storm and it is as tense as the stormy moments in Rogan’s book. As well, the fact that the main character is a young woman who was involved in a man’s murder (while also being the narrator) and somehow escaping the law, reminds me of The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb.
This is Charlotte Rogan’s first story. I thought it was a good effort in terms of issue-driven reading. It certainly grabbed my attention. What did you feel about the book? Next month we explore true love between two young hopefuls when I talk about Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner.