This is a Dear America that properly doesn’t even belong in the canon, as it is about a British girl who only actually sets foot in America over the last three pages. But this probably falls under Being Too Picky.
Voyage on the Great Titanic, The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady: R.M.S. Titanic, 1912, Ellen Emerson White, 1998.
There’s an awful lot of Titanic stories out there, and it’s somewhat overdone—we all know the story of the Titanic by now, so it’s hard to put a good, interesting spin on it. This came out the year after the film did, so it was capitalizing on a wave of Titanic-sentiment around that time. However, Ellen Emerson White does a nice job of creating a strong character in a fairly uninteresting story, and it’s a nice introduction to the story for younger readers.
Margaret is a thirteen-year-old orphan in London, who has been living in an orphanage run by nuns for the past five years. Her father was a dockworker killed in an accident, and her already-frail mother died not long after that, and after living on the streets for a few months with her brother, Margaret herself took ill. There’s a very sad recollection where Margaret retells how her ten-year-old brother left her on the doorstep of the orphanage, eight years old, and if you do not feel your heart wrenched by this you have no heart at all. So Margaret is bereft of family other than the nuns, but she is still not quite convinced when one of them approaches her with the opportunity to become a “companion” to a wealthy woman crossing the ocean alone.
Now, the idea of a “companion” is a sort of descendant of the ladies’ maid, but requires even less real work—their job is basically to accompany a woman and provide her with conversation and someone to eat with and generally be seen with. Mrs. Carstairs, the wealthy American woman in question, is traveling back to the States on the Titanic to be with her daughter and new grandson, but since her husband won’t be able to come, she needs a companion to accompany her. She hears about Margaret’s orphanage, and the nuns recommend her as a viable candidate, so after a ritzy meeting at a fancy London hotel, Mrs. Carstairs chooses her.
So even though Margaret doesn’t have a family, she is still ambivalent about leaving the only real home she’s ever known. But Mrs. Carstairs outfits her with a new suit of clothes, and Margaret writes to her brother William to let her know, and she says goodbye to the nuns and the other girls at the orphanage for her trip. She is amazed to find she gets her own room at the hotel the Carstairses are staying at, with her own bathroom, and luxuriates in a really nice-sounding bath the night before they are due to get onto the train for the Titanic.
The ship, of course, Margaret finds to be “the most magical and astounding place in the world. Bigger, grander, and more exotic than I could possibly have predicted.” She is, of course, traveling in first class with the wealthy Mrs. Carstairs, and so entitled to all the privileges thereof. Aboard ship they are entitled to a steward for their block of rooms, Robert, whom Margaret takes a fancy to as he allegedly reminds her of someone who would be friends with William. He appreciates Margaret’s slightly saucy manner as Mrs. Carstairs eminently does not, so Margaret relishes in the opportunity to talk with him.
Margaret admires all the fittings of the ship—the beautifully-appointed dining room, the staterooms, the beautiful library, etc.—and the amazing food, unlike anything she’s ever had before. “Frankly, I never want to leave this ship; it is the most wonderful place on earth.” I don’t blame her. She makes it sound utterly amazing. Better, if you ask me, than the film of Titanic. She accompanies Mrs. Carstairs to her meals, looks after her yappy little dog Florence, and goes to the religious services with her.
The evening of the disaster (this is hardly a spoiler—it’s been a century, I’m confident we all know what happened to the Titanic by now), Margaret goes with Mrs. Carstairs to a fancy reception and dinner, and notes afterwards how chilly it is. She notes that her cocoa spills and her pen skips across the page a bit, and she can no longer hear the engine, and then it skips to Monday the fifteenth, where she is recapping the events of the night.
When Robert knocks on her door to alert her, Margaret puts on her life jacket and a heavy coat, as she normally would, and tries to persuade Mrs. Carstairs to do the same, but is brushed off. On the deck, the captain calls for volunteers for the lifeboats, but no one wants to go near them when the ship is so warm and safe (and tilting, a tiny bit). Margaret urges Mrs. Carstairs into one of the lifeboats (with Florence), and then Mrs. Carstairs tells her to wait until the other first-class ladies have boarded, and they’ll meet up later. OUCH. But Margaret chases off to find Robert sitting bleakly in a hallway, staring at nothing. He urges her to go back to the deck, and she says she’ll just take another boat, when he tells her there are no more boats. He keeps forcing her to go upstairs and gives her a letter for his mother, kisses her, and sends her off.
She gets onto one of the very last boats—after they are boarding men—and they move aside gallantly for her. They row frantically as best they can to get away, and watch in horror as the ship tilts and tilts and things (and people) go sliding and crashing into the sea while the band plays and plays. There is nothing to do but float and listen to the screams of the dying (and two rescued men aboard their lifeboat die). They are rescued at dawn by the Carpathia, where Margaret meets Mrs. Carstairs again, and they finish their trip to New York.
Margaret is wracked with grief and guilt at being one of the lucky few to make it aboard the lifeboats, and when they arrive in New York she is reluctant to take the money Mrs. Carstairs offers her. William is there to meet her and take her back to Boston with him, where they can live together in a little flat of their own.
In the epilogue, we learn that Margaret kept in touch with the nuns and attended Wellesley, and married a history teacher, but never managed to get aboard another boat.
Rating: B. This is a pretty decent retelling of the Titanic story—certainly far better than some I’ve read for YA readers—and Margaret is an interesting and fun character who doesn’t lapse into either Romance or Mawkish. The other characters are drawn pretty nicely and have their virtues and flaws—which is pretty much the best thing to be said for a story that relies on a plot that everyone and their brother knows by now. So quite decent, with flashes of real comedy and drama, and a well-told version.