Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shipload of Titanic books as 100th anniversary of sinking nears

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Does the world need more books about the Titanic? Probably about as much as it needs a 3-D version of James Cameron's movie.

Still, a veritable shipload is being released to commemorate the April 14 100th anniversary of the sinking.

While the world would continuing spinning without most of them, happily, the titles discussed are all first-rate.

All tell the well-trod tale of the rich and famous who sailed on the White Star Line's ill-fated luxury liner; some highlight the effects the catastrophe had on the survivors, and others tell the story of the officers and crew.

Two are by Canadians; John Boileau and Hugh Brewster fill out neglected stories of Canadian victims and Halifax's role in the recovery and identification of the 1,517 lost.

Brewster's gossipy volume, RMS Titanic, takes us into the first-class suites and dining rooms reserved for the Edwardian Age's moneyed elite: John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Straus, Sir Cosmo Duff Cooper, J. Bruce Ismay and Molly Brown. These well-heeled travellers enjoyed unparalleled luxury and strictly enforced segregation from third-class immigrants.

Brewster includes some spicy detail on Canadian first-classers. These included Harry Molson of the famous brewing family and Winnipeg real estate mogul Mark Fortune. Fortune owned most of the land that became Portage Avenue.

Other Winnipeggers in the group included John Graham of the T. Eaton Company, a trio of bachelors known as the "three musketeers" (Thompson Beattie, Thomas McCaffry and John Hugo Ross), and their friend, ex-Winnipegger J.J. Borebank, who travelled with them.

Another Manitoban, Leonard Hickman of Eden, was travelling second class. Neither Fortune, his son Charles, nor the other locals survived the morning of April 15.

Seven year-old Eva Hart was a second-class passenger immigrating to Winnipeg with her parents. She recalled, as British journalist Andrew Wilson relates in Shadow of the Titanic, "One minute the ship was there with its lights still ablaze... and the next minute it was gone. At the same time there was a great noise from the screams and cries of hundreds of people plunged into the penetratingly cold icy Atlantic with little hope of being saved."

Many other survivors tell of the nightmarish cries that filled the night and then the utter silence that followed, as hypothermia claimed those in the water. The cacophony of death, more than the sight of the sinking, haunted their lives.

Titanic survivors were often plagued by anxiety, depression and nightmares. Wilson believes that they were suffering from "survivor syndrome," which is marked with an overwhelming guilt as they lived while friends, family and strangers died. There were 10 known suicides by Titanic survivors.

Not all the stories Wilson tells are sad, but few survivors lived happily ever after. As Marion Wright said in an interview on the 50th anniversary of the sinking, "the events are so etched in my mind that it seems like it happened yesterday."

Hundreds of bodies were floating in the main shipping lane of the North Atlantic. Passengers on passing liners were distressed by the sight of the bobbing dead. As a sop to their public image, the White Star Line eventually hired Canadian ships to recover as many icy corpses as possible.

Boileau in Halifax and Titanic, Christopher Ward in And the Band Played On and Yvonne Hume in The First Violin tell of the grisly task of recovery, identification, embalming, burial at sea and transportation of the lost to Halifax.

The main burden fell upon the officers and men of the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, which recovered 306 of the 337 people eventually found.

Each of these three is superbly illustrated with archival photographs, documents and personal memorabilia. Boileau's illustrations centre on Halifax, whereas Ward's and Hume's primarily focus on the life of Jock Hume, the first violinist in Titanic's orchestra. His body, No. 193, is buried in the Titanic section of Halifax's Fairfax Cemetery.

With some notable exceptions, such as Ismay, Gordon and other rich men who lived while children died, Titanic's victims are thought of as heroes.

However, writes Ward, the bandsmen were thought of as "superheroes."

The story of the eight-man orchestra is an essential element in the Titanic legacy.

The band played to calm the doomed liner's passengers, as it slipped into the icy North Atlantic.

Particularly sad is the story of Hume, a 21-year-old Scot who left behind a pregnant girlfriend. Ward is his grandson and Hume is his great-niece.

Both have penned competing tributes to the brave musician and his band-mates. Each book has its particular virtues; both tell the story of the band and the ship's sinking. Ward also tells the complex generational story of the Hume family's troubles in Dumfries, Scotland.

Hume's includes biographies of all the musicians, whose families were callously treated by shipping line, a copy of the White Star Line's musical repertoire and an interview she conducted with Miss Mellvina Dean, the last survivor of the disaster.

The Watch That Ends the Night is a must-read. In this work of historical fiction, released last fall, American writer Allan Wolf enters the lives and deaths of 22 men and women who sailed on the Titanic.

Each represent an aspect of the human condition: bravery and cowardliness, wisdom and foolishness, compassion and heartlessness, as millionaire and immigrant, officers and crewman come together in the defining moment of their lives.

The great Victorian poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, who died in 1928, wrote: "Over the mirrors meant/To Glass the opulent/ The sea worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb and indifferent."

Nature cares not a whit about humanity, but people who treasure the story will likely remember the tragic Titanic forever.

A Winnipeg historian and landlubber, Ian Stewart teaches at Cecil Rhodes School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 J10

History

Updated on Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 9:48 AM CDT: adds photo, adds fact box

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