Halifax and Titanic

My mother picked up this autographed edition of Halifax and Titanic by John Boileau during our trip down east in the summer of 2012. I inherited it and decided finally to read it. The focus of this book is the role Halifax played in the story of the Titanic, most notably the rescue effort and the interment of its victims. Long before I started to write book reviews in 2010 I had read extensively about the Titanic and especially its position in Halifax history. (My life partner is a Haligonian and as a labour of love I wanted to read as much as I could about Nova Scotian history.) And so after a brief break from Titanica [1] I come to this book, published in the year my mother bought it by Nimbus, a company that specializes in Canadian Atlantic history. 

Boileau wrote a rapid page-turner, a remark I noted soon after I started reading. For a story whose ending everyone knows, I stopped myself several times mid-read to reflect on how the author managed to make this history sound new. We started in Belfast at the turn of the twentieth century as Titanic was being built, and learned about the White Star Line shipping company. Dozens of photos and artistic depictions of the disaster were included. While I had seen many of the photos before, the paintings were all new to me. 

During my reading I always pay attention to the author’s use of simile. In a nonfiction work such as this I relied on the testimony of Titanic survivors who recalled the moment the ship struck the iceberg. I reread the impression made by Mrs. Ella White who described it “as though we went over about a thousand marbles.”. I can put myself in White’s cabin that evening and imagine the sound of the collision because her impression was so vivid. Passenger Victor Sunderland described the sound “similar to that a basket of coal would make if dropped on an iron plate.”. Different sounds, for sure, but each one a valuable insight into being on board during that fateful voyage. The first ship sent to recover the deceased passengers was the Mackay-Bennett. Upon arrival at the scene of bodies and debris scattered across the ice-strewn ocean, Captain Larnder remarked that the sight was “like nothing so much as a flock of sea gulls resting upon the water…All we could see at first would be the top of the life preservers.”

Boileau wrote about the confusion after the collision and the disorder on deck while passengers scrambled for a place on the lifeboats. He told the story in a timeline of five-minute intervals. He did not resort to sensationalism (as some newspaper reporters did at the time) in conveying the desperation people felt and the helpless agony of parents who lost their children in the melee. We were given tours of the three Titanic cemeteries and who among the identified victims was buried there. The story of the unknown child is riveting reading. 

[1] Other reads on the subject are from 2012 and 2013.

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