Thursday, November 8, 2012

2013 Second Takes: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I was six years old when they found the wreckage of the Titanic, and though at that point I'd never heard of the ship, I still have distinct memories of watching the National Geographic special about it. Something about the eerie images of railings covered in cascading rust and staircases buried beneath an unthinkable amount of water struck a chord in my mind.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster has something of the same feeling to it. It's told in straight chronological order, and as the various characters' stories show the impending catastrophe, it just gets creepier and creepier. Like Rachael said in her review, even though I knew perfectly well how the book would end, I still had a feeling of suspense, hoping that it would turn out differently. It's this tone, this sense of impending dread, that I think is the book's most distinguished feature.

I did have some of the same concerns Rachael had regarding the book's very high number of characters. I had some trouble keeping track of them all, and even though the book has a "People in this Book" section in its extensive back matter, it didn't actually include everyone discussed in its pages. (I really wanted to know more about Frederick Fleet, the lookout who first spotted the fateful iceberg.)

One of the biggest challenges in talking about books in a Newbery context is trying to separate the very good from the great. I think Titanic falls into the former category. It's solid through and through, but it doesn't quite have the near-mysticism of Moonbird, or the poetry of Hope and Tears. You should buy this book for your collection, read it, booktalk it, and recommend it, no question about it -- I just don't think it quite reaches the heights of this year's very best nonfiction titles.


  1. I admit to being bored to tears by anything with the word "bird" in the title, so I won't compare this to Hoose, but I think you have given this a slightly short shrift. For one thing, I think TITANIC is far and away the best piece of nonfiction qua nonfiction this year. That is - in terms of the level of research, and bringing together of sources, as well as scrupulously avoiding the pitfalls that BOMB falls into (as discussed over at Heavy Medal). One brilliant example is when Hopkinson relates the story of a passenger noticing Capt. Smith and Andrews going off to a cabin together. Every depiction of the Titanic disaster I've seen discusses this meeting, and often dramatize it, despite the fact that the two people who were there both died in the wreck. Hopkinson has a very nice line where she states something like "this is the only evidence we have for what was probably the most important conversation of the night." Great use of primary sources, plus a subtle comment on the way other researchers have used this source to embellish the historical record.

    On top of that, I think the narrative style, while not as immediately engaging as BOMB or MOONBIRD has a power and beauty all to its own (and is where you're picking up the "eerieness"). Finally, I should say that I didn't have any trouble keeping track of the characters, especially on a second read, and especially compared to, say, WE'VE GOT A JOB.

    If I can't figure out a way to justify the flaws in BOMB, then TITANIC is hands down my pick for best Nonfiction of the year, and maybe even best book of the year.

    All that being said, I should note, that I actually think it is more of a YA, edging on Adult, title, and only just barely scrapes the top of the Newbery age range.
    - Mark

    1. Interesting thoughts. I found WE'VE GOT A JOB a lot easier to keep track of people in, but it might have to do with the fact that, despite the memorableness of the TV special to my childhood mind, I don't actually know the story of the Titanic anywhere near as well as I know the story of various Civil Rights events. Good call on the carefulness of the research though.

      I'll admit that nature writing is my favorite kind of nonfiction, and so MOONBIRD is the easiest sell to me of any of this year's premier NF titles. But -- and this is a post in itself, one that will be coming eventually -- in my representing-nobody-but-myself opinion, a key word in the Newbery's description is "literature." Excellent nonfiction isn't necessarily excellent literature. The Encyclopedia Brittanica and Annals of the Former World are both great nonfiction, but to me, only the latter is great literature. It's a key difference to me between something like AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN (great and literature, retaining its inherent interest years after it's written) and A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE (really, really good nonfiction, but not in a way that would make it great literature).

    2. That piece about literature is, indeed, a whole other post, and a very important one. My personal take is that TITANIC is both great NF and great literature (though not as great literature as BOMB, and maybe not as great literature as WGAJ, though I have to reread that one), but I think you have at least a valid argument going after it on that front.
      - Mark