Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: The Man Who Sunk Titanic by Sally Nilsson

Sally Nilsson's The Man Who Sank Titanic: The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hichens is the biographical/nonfiction story of her ancestor. Hichens was at the wheel of Titanic at the time of the collision, and manned lifeboat six, famously telling Molly Brown to "shut that hole in your face."

I've always been fascinated with the tragic story of Titanic, but it can be difficult to find nonfiction books that are not dry or an exhausting read. Fortunately, this book is accessible, detailed, and well-written, and covers the events before, during and after of the world's most famous maritime disaster.

With previously unpublished research and family photographs, this book by Hichens' granddaughter sets the record straight about the Titanic quartermaster who steered into an iceberg and kept control of a lifeboat. Robert Hichens has gone down in history as the man who was given the famous order to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg and failed. A key witness at both U.S. and British Inquiries, he returned to a livelihood where fellow crewmen considered him jinxed. But Robert had a long career and was a hardworking, ambitious seaman. A fisherman at 19, he quickly became a junior officer in the merchant navy. In World War II he was part of a cargo ship convoy on route to Africa where his ship dodged mines, U-boats and enemy aircraft. To Robert, being at sea was everything but the dark memories of the Titanic were never far away and in 1933 a failed murder attempt after a bitter feud nearly cost Robert his life. Here Robert's great-granddaughter Sally Nilsson seeks to set the record straight and reveal the true character of the man her family knew. This is one man's story of survival, betrayal and determination.

Although part of Nilsson's thesis is to show that Robert Hichens was not the cold and uncaring person he is often painted as, the book doesn't read with a heavy bias. Nilsson treats the history with integrity, sticking to the facts in light of her relation to Hitchens, and includes the good, the bad, and the unclear details about the disaster and his life, leaving the reader free to form their own opinion.

Other interesting facts include crew hierarchy, the ship's operations, the early parts of the voyage, other key witnesses and famous passengers, as well as emergency procedures. Nilsson even goes so far as to compare and draw parallels with James Cameron's film. By comparing moments in the film to the facts, any confident reader who saw the movie can then pick this book up, enjoy it, and learn something.

The legal proceedings were particularly interesting. Nilsson covers the questioning of key witnesses and speaks to the efforts of the White Star Line to conceal the gross negligence that inarguably occurred on April 14th. The book includes transcripts, glossy photographs, unpublished research, diagrams, and a helpful index. The writing style and flow of the narrative makes it easy to submerge one's self in the history and to really appreciate the magnitude of the disaster.

Whether you're a novice or a well-read Titanic enthusiast, this book is definitely worth reading. The book opened my eyes to the determination of the world to blame someone for the disaster. We come to understand the man who steered the ship into the iceberg and why he earned his reputation of being a coward and a bully. More importantly, we learn to sympathize with him, and with the difficult position that the surviving crew members were placed in.

Along with a lot of new information, I also began to think differently about the disaster. When you watch the film, you think about how lucky the people in the boats are to survive at all. What you don't usually consider is how terrible surviving can be. There was a large amount of shame with having your name associated with employment on the Titanic, particularly because seaman are superstitious people. Survivors were haunted by the memory of the sinking and the sounds of the dying 1500 people in the ocean. The world desperately wanted to assign blame to the crew, particularly to those who survived, when other officers went down with Titanic. On top of this was the guilt, the difficulty finding work, and the crushing pressure of the press. No, surviving was not easy. And for some, like Robert, sometimes surviving felt like a fate worse than death.

The Man Who Sunk The Titanic is an eye-opening and fascinating read. This is a great book for people interested in learning more about Titanic, and a valuable addition to school and public libraries.

4 Stars

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