In a rural Irish village in April 1912, seventeen-year-old Maggie Murphy is anxious about the trip to America. While the thirteen others she will travel with from her Parish anticipate a life of prosperity and opportunity, Maggie is distraught to be leaving Séamus, the man she loves with all her heart. As the carts rumble out of the village, she clutches a packet of love letters in her coat pocket and hopes that he will be able to join her in America soon.
Seventy years later, in Chicago, 1982, twenty-one year old Grace Butler is stunned to learn that her Great Nana Maggie sailed on Titanic. She sets out to write Maggie’s story as a way to resurrect her journalism career. Neither Grace nor Maggie can know what far-reaching impact the article will have on them both when it is eventually published.
Like many people, I have about of a fascination for the Titanic story and all those details of the people who sailed on her. I loved the film (albeit flawed in some ways) for bringing that period to life and trying to get across the bravery and the mistakes of that terrible night. I was interested in this novel for the same reason and also because it promised to show a little of what happened afterwards, which is something I know less about.
The narrative follows the story of Maggie Murphy leaving Ireland for a new life with her Aunt in America. We get a full picture a her feelings about it, the hope that lives ahead for her and others sailing with her and also her sadness at those she is leaving behind, in particular her sweetheart Seamus.
Fourteen people leave Maggie’s village for a new life over the water all of them steerage passengers, so we know from the start their chances of survival are slim! Through their eyes we see the huge Titanic with the best steerage accommodation a ship can have, even down to crested cutlery. Part of the novel is also written from the point of view of Harry Walsh, a steerage Stewart and gives insight into what it was like to work on this great ship. We even get to see the upper decks when Harry has to go and walk the dogs of the elite!
Obviously the Titanic story is known, Hazel adds more interest through her characters and making the most of the lives they leave behind and their relationships. One girl travelling has a sister waiting to meet her in New York and there is the excitement felt by her followed by the confusion and worry as different reports come on about what has happened to the ship and its occupants. The fact that there were a group of 13 people who left on the Titanic only adds to the sense of tragedy.
We know that Maggie survives the shipwreck from the novel’s title! Hazel uses this to set part of her story in the 1980’s as Maggie begins to want to tell her story and shares it with her great grand- daughter. Maggie has never really shared her story before, having had such complex feelings about being a survivor. But as she is now pretty old she feels she doesn’t want her story to die with her. The things she experienced on the voyage and particularly that night have shaped her whole life, not least as she could never set foot on a boat again, meaning she never did return to her sweetheart. You’ll have to read the story to find out what happens to them both!
Maggie’s decision to share her story has huge implications for Grace her great grand-daughter. She lost her father a couple of years ago and has dropped out of college (studying journalism) to help her mother keep it together. In the process of dealing with her own grief Grace has destroyed her relationship with her boyfriend. Maggie’s tale inspires her to re-engage with her own put aside dreams and aspirations. Maggie’s decision to return to Ireland as an old lady adds an extra spin to it all as well,
Verdict: This was an enjoyable take on a well-known event with a great eye for detail and the human interest.
Reviewed by Helen