A Winter’s Tale: The Wreck of the Florizel by Cassie Brown follows Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 in the reporting of another devastating sea disaster in Newfoundland in the early twentieth century. The Florizel was a passenger liner that was also used in the seal hunt as described in Death on the Ice. Fate took her four years later as she was run aground on the Renews Rocks, off the southeast Avalon Peninsula. A map of her final trip was an invaluable resource and I referred to it constantly as I travelled along on her final journey.
As in Death on the Ice, Brown has the capacity to write a gripping story which centres the reader in the midst of disaster. You can feel the panic of the passengers as they scramble for survival amidst torrents of freezing water rushing into their cabins. From the beginning the reader is presented with a mystery–it is stated on the back cover–about the slow speed of the Florizel and how it might have related to her foundering. This mystery hung over the entire read. Captain William Martin wondered why the ship wasn’t travelling as fast as she should especially since he had issued a full speed order. Only during the enquiry did we learn of the relationship between the captain and the chief engineer, John Reader, and how they often didn’t communicate even though they each played vital roles in navigation. Brown saved the reason for the ship’s slow speed–a personal, selfish one which ended up costing 94 lives–until the very end.
Of the 138 passengers, only 44 survived. I can only wonder if more might have survived if the rescue effort wasn’t hindered by red tape and wasteful poking around on shore for people to act. Brown was able to write about the fury of the sea however her survivor testimonies seemed repetitive. This book was published in 1976 and in her research and interviews with survivors I can imagine that she wanted to include everyone’s eyewitness accounts. She incorporated all of these personal memories within the story yet they often told the same horrific story of the struggle to survive. Everyone needed to stay alert amidst the whining and scraping of the ship as she tore apart. The strength of waves crashing over the ship and carrying people overboard, while tragic, seemed monotonous until the rescue ships were sighted and something new happened.
Three-year-old Betty Munn perished in the wreck and this statue of Peter Pan was erected in her memory in Bowring Park in St. John’s. I visited this park with my mother and Mark in 2012: