My blog is now six months old, and this is my thirtieth review! Thank you all for your continued interest in my very-niche-interest blog, and please continue to keep reading!
This week I am venturing into the wide world of Dear Canada! One of the most interesting things I’ve found in studying these books is how the DC books present a different counterpoint to the Dear America books covering the same time period. For an example, since last week I did the DA book on the Titanic, this week I’m going to cover the DC Titanic book.
That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1912, Sarah Ellis, 2011.
I’m quite biased, as a rule—I think the Dear Canada books are as a whole, better-written and better at covering a given subject matter. They present more cohesive stories and generally seem to create a better, more evocative, more nuanced picture. If you ask me. Which no one did, but this is my blog and I get to say what I want.
Anyway, to get started, this is one of the shortest DC books (since, as we’ve established, there isn’t a lot of new story surrounding the Titanic sinking). As the book opens, Dorothy is a twelve-year-old girl living in Halifax with her parents (after her grown brother Charles has moved to New York), and who has been forbidden from returning to her school after slapping another girl. She has just returned from New York, where she docked after surviving the sinking of the Titanic, while her guardian Miss Pugh did not.
Dorothy is suffering some pretty acute PTSD—it fairly jumps off the page, and it’s a really nice portrayal of the way trauma might manifest itself in a young girl. The reason Dorothy started smacking one of her schoolmates was that the other girl began telling Dorothy how some of the Titanic bodies couldn’t be identified after being “chewed on by sea creatures,” and Dorothy couldn’t handle hearing about it any more. I feel like she is fully justified in this. The whole book is told in a back-and-forth manner—a little bit about her current life, a little bit about her trip to England and on the Titanic.
After spending the summer in England, Dorothy has taken a turn for the obsessive-tidying, which her mother attributes to the good teachings of her grandmother, but is in reality a way of asserting control over her life. It turns out her grandparents are quite the bohemian couple, who don’t give two figs about keeping an orderly house and would rather spend their time gallivanting, picnicking, and generally behaving like a couple of wild things themselves. Dorothy’s parents, on the other hand, are Very Conventional—they live in a large house in a nice part of Halifax, and her father is a banker. There’s a really interesting contrast between her parents and her grandparents, and there’s positives and negatives associated with both. I really love how her grandmother is shown to be an ardent feminist, but it’s not her whole life—not every single person in the Edwardian era was exactly the same, but people managed to get by without too much strife in their families, for the most part.
Dorothy has continual panic attacks (although not so called) during the night, suffers from depression, and generally can’t seem to keep her head on straight. While she is suspended from school, she goes with her mother for a walk in the park, only to be accosted on the way home by a group of people who recognize her as “Local Schoolgirl: Titanic Survivor” and her mother has to take them to her father’s bank to escape the people. But to keep up with her suspension, one of Dorothy’s teachers brings her some schoolwork and the poem The Jumblies to memorize, which ends up becoming a focal point for her during her PTSD.
It turns out that Dorothy spent two months visiting her grandparents in England (after suffering extreme seasickness on the way over!) and befriending the housekeeper’s kids. She’s more or less allowed to do as she pleases, and spends her time reading and playing and discussing current events with her grandfather. It’s a definite contrast to her post-Titanic life—“I don’t like the way I am. I don’t like waking up in the night, afraid, but I can’t even remember what was going on in my dream. I don’t like the feeling of being outside myself. I’m talking to Phoebe or Mother or Asquith [the cat] and all of a sudden I’m in some other corner of the room looking at myself.” Painful and realistic and awful, all at once
Miss Caughy, Dorothy’s teacher, comes over to visit and gives her a copy of The Railway Children, and it turns out Edith Nesbitt (aka Edith Bland) is a friend of her grandparents’, and Miss Caughy urges Dorothy to write about her experiences herself in an effort to maybe start processing things a bit better. She’s clever, that Miss Caughy.
As it happened, Dorothy was to be accompanied on her trip by one Miss Pugh, a woman from her father’s bank, and the two of them did not take a very violent fancy to one another. Miss Pugh spends most of her time needling and correcting Dorothy for being a typical young girl, and Dorothy retaliates by being deliberately saucy and bad.
But aboard the Titanic, she befriends Beryl, their stewardess, and another girl named Marjorie, and manages to spend most of her time out of Miss Pugh’s irritating reach. The girls explore the ship—the dog kennels, the swimming pool, the gymnasium—and even though they’re in second class, they marvel at how lovely everything aboard the ship is.
There’s a really painful, touching, heartbreaking scene where Dorothy’s mother tells her a little bit about how awful it was when they were waiting for news on the Titanic and had heard only that it had sunk. It kills me to imagine the horror and fear of parents afraid that their twelve-year-old daughter has drowned—or worse, is unaccounted for somewhere. So awful, and it never gets really touched on in Titanic stories!
The final straw in Dorothy’s frustration with Miss Pugh (and the catalyst for a huge portion of her guilt and shame) is when at dinner the evening of the accident, Miss Pugh tries to force Dorothy to eat mashed turnips in front of the rest of the table. “Turnip smells like a lavatory,” says Dorothy, and I cannot disagree. When they go back to the room, Miss Pugh scolds Dorothy for being so wicked, and tells her to go straight to bed while she goes to prayer meeting. Dorothy instead tears the room up and scatters Miss Pugh’s things all over the place, hides her shoes, and then goes to bed and cries herself to sleep.
That night, Beryl comes in to wake her and shoves her into her clothes, shoes, and life jacket while Miss Pugh is dithering about in fear. But Beryl takes Dorothy in hand and gets them both onto a lifeboat—and Dorothy says she didn’t know who to be obedient to, Miss Pugh, or Beryl. But she didn’t want to wait for Miss Pugh, and she was afraid, so onto the lifeboat she went, and they watch the Titanic go down as if in a dream. They are picked up by the Carpathia the next morning, and Dorothy is so numb with terror and shock that she can’t do anything for the next few days except listen to Beryl’s stories and stare vacantly around her and play endless games of Solitaire. She is overcome with the thought that she is responsible for Miss Pugh’s death by throwing her clothes and things all over the room, and she couldn’t find them in time.
Dorothy is met in New York by her brother Charles, who takes her and hugs her in his coat and escorts her home via train to Montreal and then to Halifax, where her parents are grateful almost beyond words to see her. But now that it is July, she finds that people are still treating her strangely—a neighbour apologizes for singing a sea shanty about drowning, for example—and she writes “I wanted to say ‘I don’t think about the Titanic every minute. It’s not the most important thing about me’” but doesn’t know how—it’s a very realistic drawing of the impact trauma has on both the survivor and the people around her.
But that month, Dorothy’s parents tell her they have a surprise for her—and it turns out to be a visit from Beryl, of all people! Dorothy is delighted beyond measure to see her, and they chatter away and Beryl apologizes for leaving her at the dock in New York and not seeing she was taken care of. She fills Dorothy in on some of the other survivors, and they cry a bit together and grieve and Dorothy confesses that it’s her fault Miss Pugh died. But Beryl tells her it wasn’t—she noticed the mess after Dorothy went to sleep and tidied up for her. But Dorothy says she doesn’t understand then why Miss Pugh was dithering about so confused, and Beryl tells her it was fear—and her responsibility was to Dorothy, to keep her safe, and she felt she had no other choice but to look after Dorothy.
Dorothy is filled with grateful relief at this, and in the epilogue we learn that she became a journalist—inspired, in part, by her experiences on the Titanic and the many conflicting reports that emerged in its wake. She remained in touch with Beryl her whole life, but refused any and all Titanic reunions, interviews, and general questions.
Rating: A. I really love this one. I think it’s a much better way of illustrating the Titanic story—incorporating another story on top of it—because the general threadbareness of the Titanic narrative tends to be a little overdone by now. It’s also a wonderful example of a girl with PTSD and shock issues—it’s really phenomenal without being overblown in any way. Dorothy and her family are funny, interesting, whole people, and it’s overall an awesome and well-rounded story.