January 6, 2012

Review: How to Survive the Titanic

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Titanic. But in How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay Frances Wilson has brought a new perspective to the familiar tale of disaster and woe. She tells the story of J. Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star Line of ships, who happened to be on the Titanic the night it sank, and chose not to go down with his ship.

Ismay, who had had a fairly unhappy life, was never liked by many people because he was seen as awkward and unfriendly. But after the Titanic sank, he went from being socially acceptable, if not fully liked, to almost a pariah. He was blacklisted from his clubs, pilloried in the press, and subjected to inquiries by the American Senate and the British Parliament. The press ran wild contrasting ‘heroic’ men who went down with the ship with men like Ismay who took places in lifeboats before all the women and children had escaped.

Wilson then compares Ismay to Lord Jim, the titular character from Joseph Conrad’s novel. Like Ismay, Lord Jim chose not to go down with his ship and had to suffer the consequences. Wilson skillfully draws the parallels between Conrad’s work and Ismay’s life, ruminating on what makes the difference between a brave man and a coward. She leaves the ultimate decision on whether or not Ismay was truly a coward up to the reader, however. How to Survive the Titanic is an interesting and well-researched take on the history of the famous ship and its ostracized owner.

Somehow I'd never even thought about there being in investigation into the accident, or repercussions for it. Maybe because of the movie, but the Titanic seems almost like a modern day fairy tale to me, and it's sort of odd to imagine real-world consequences for the disaster.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Sure!

How about you? 
Do you know much about the Titanic besides the obvious James Cameron version?

(A version of this review was originally written for Shelf Awareness and the cover image is an Amazon affiliate link).