Wednesday, September 19, 2012

2013 Contenders: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, by Deborah Hopkinson

I don't have any particular interest in the Titanic disaster, but I found this book riveting. It reminds me of last year's Amelia Lost, in that you know perfectly well how it's going to end, but you're still on the edge of your seat. I really, really wanted them to find more lifeboats, you know?

Hopkinson achieves this effect through her masterful use of primary sources. As the title indicates, much of the text consists of eyewitness accounts from aboard the ill-fated ship. The structure is mainly chronological, with a short detour in the second chapter to describe the physical layout of the Titanic. At each phase of the journey, we follow the viewpoints of a set of passengers and crew members that includes emigrant families, socialites, children, officers, a stewardess, and a radio operator. As the mishaps and poor decisions start to mount, the reader observes their effects from every angle. At the moment of impact, we are privy to both the lighthearted joking in the first class smoking room and the panic of third class passengers as seawater begins to seep into their cabins. All of this is presented in crisp, clear third-person prose that never turns melodramatic or maudlin.

Well-placed photographs enhance the reading experience, as do telegrams, maps, and ephemera such as a first class dining menu. Sidebars are also judicially placed, adding depth to the account without interrupting the flow of the text. The back matter is truly impressive, comprising everything from a compendium of survivor letters to a table that reexamines the lifeboat launch sequence.

I have only one real complaint. The book's great strength is also its weakness: with so many characters, I kept forgetting who was who and having to flip back to the first couple of chapters. Their individual fates are recounted in a "People in this Book" section in the back, but a brief list of dramatis personae near the table of contents would have been handy.

Where does it fall in terms of Newbery criteria? In the area of presentation of information, it beats anything I've read this year, though I haven't read widely in nonfiction. I think it also excels in plot and character, and possibly style too. Another excellent 2012 title to add to the pile!

Published in April through Scholastic Press 

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