Another book on the Titanic, added to my list after our trip to the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri, this past summer (and the museum is mentioned in the book!). I’m the type of person who, when I get interested in a subject, I often tend to read about that subject until I’m sick of it, so I’m trying to pace myself more with the Titanic; I think I only added two books to my TBR when I went searching post-vacation. Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraodinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson (Simon & Schuster, 2011), however, was exactly what I was looking for in a book. I’ll explain.
Almost every book on the Titanic disaster recaps the early days of the ship and the dreadfulness of the iceberg crash and subsequent sinking, and Shadow of the Titanic is no different in that regard. It begins, in fact, with an absolutely terrifying description of the sounds survivors heard as the ship itself went down, the crashing and banging of pianos and tables and dishes as they tumbled through the ship or fell overboard, the groan of the ship as it broke apart, and the terrible screaming of people as they jumped or fell to certain death in twenty-eight degree water. One survivor admitted to never being able to take his sons to a baseball game, because the roar of the crowd reminded him too much of what he heard as the Ship of Dreams sank. Where this book diverges, though, is by following select survivors throughout their lives and pinpointing how their experiences as Titanic survivors affected them. This isn’t a book about the ship, it’s a book about the people who, against the odds, lived through this disaster.
And Mr. Wilson doesn’t just follow their lives immediately after their return to dry land; for the survivors profiled in this book, he devotes entire sections that cover their whole lives, including how they ended up on the Titanic in the first place, and then recounting their lives, the highlights and the lowest of lows, until their deaths. Spread throughout is more information about the Titanic, and how its aftermath affected culture and history around the world.
I found this book deeply fascinating, both in its presentation of information that I previously hadn’t known, and in how varied survivors’ reactions to what they’d been through could be. It seemed as though most of them suffered from what we know today as PTSD, but for which there was really no term for back then, and anyway, society didn’t much allow for anyone to talk about those kinds of things. People were just expected to pick up and move on with their lives fairly immediately, and some did this with more grace than others (for lack of a better term; I would’ve been an entire mess, and quite a few people were, including at least one woman who spent the rest of her life in a sanitarium). There were a handful of suicides, some terrible stories of widows arriving back to land to find that their husbands had left them deeply in debt, women who had lost both husband and sons, and people who never seemed to be able to get their lives back on track afterwards. There were people who wound up making a living off of being a survivor and others who couldn’t bear to talk about it (and who forbid others around them to talk about it as well). It really runs the gamut, and there’s no singular profile of a Titanic survivor; Shadow of the Titanic makes that very clear.
If you’re interested in the Titanic, I highly recommend this book. It’s not exactly uplifting reading, but it’s an intriguing study in survivor psychology in the years after the Titanic sank and shouldn’t be missed if this is one of your pet subjects.