Saturday, December 22, 2012

Come at once. We have struck a berg.

This may be a first for this blog: I am a friendly acquaintance of author Deborah Hopkinson, whose Titanic: Voices from the Disaster went into my ears when I learned it was on the shortlist for YALSA's 2013 Award for Excellent in Nonfiction. A colleague on this award committee expressed concern that I would be missing the visuals by listening, but I forged ahead anyway.

Who doesn't know what happened in the middle of the North Atlantic late in the evening of April 14, 1912?  There is no doubt that it makes a great story, remaining vividly in view for more than 100 years. Hopkinson knows we know, so she tells the story almost exclusively through the recollections of survivors -- a teenager who scorned getting on a lifeboat with the women and children, a stewardess who survived another sinking four years later, a science teacher on holiday, a young Norwegian immigrant returning to the US, the courageous telegraph operator who stood at his post until almost the end, and the highest ranking officer who survived by hanging on precariously to an upside-down lifeboat. She augments their voices with the ship's facts and figures and the chronological telling of the brief hours between striking the iceberg and the sinking of the great ship.  It's engaging and interesting, and filled with horror and tension. Even though you know a particular individual must have lived (because they are talking to you), their survival is no less miraculous. The night spent by the 14 men clinging to the upside-down lifeboat, Collapsible B, was enthralling.

But, ultimately, my colleague was right. I did miss the visuals. To really enjoy this book, I needed to have it in front of me. I wanted to leaf back to remind myself who someone was, what I had learned about them earlier. I wanted to see what they looked like, and what their friends and loved ones who hadn't survived looked like. I wanted a map of the ship so I could see the odds against some of the survivors. I wanted to see how big Collapsible B was and how 14 men could have spent the long, frigid night atop it. Alas, what was mostly in my mind's eye as I listened was this (which I saw only once, but which I now have a slight craving to see again).

It was also not a great listening experience because I couldn't follow the audiobook's techniques for illustrating the book's varying narratives. Chapter headings included quotations from survivors, which were read by various uncredited narrators. But it also seemed that these spoken quotations occurred in the middle of chapters as well.  A second narrator, Peter Altschuler, pipes in occasionally to read what I think are text boxes. But either I couldn't distinguish between Altschuler's voice and that of the main narrator, Mark Bramhall, or there just weren't that many text boxes. (It could, of course, also be that I just wasn't paying enough attention [distracted by Rose and Jack].)

Altschuler reads with a older man's raspy voice, while Bramhall sounds a little younger. But they both take a documentarian approach to their reading -- calm, steady, authoritative. Emotion creeps into their narrations when reading the survivors' stories, but neither approached these quotations with an eye to voice acting. This added to my confusion as well -- the chapter heading quotations are read with characterization, characterization that I initially expected to hear in the main narrative as well. And at least at the very beginning, I thought I'd be getting a full-cast version. On the whole, the audiobook had a certain schizophrenic feel.

Hopkinson's book concludes with about 70 pages of backmatter, 50 of which are not included in the audiobook. If you like poring over this kind of stuff, it's another argument for the eyes.

I admire Hopkinson for acknowledging -- tacitly -- the scads of fictional information about this event in her text. She briefly mentions the ship's more famous passengers: Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor, and the Strauses who chose to die together. She describes the magnificent grand staircase and the first class gathering rooms. She explains that no locked gate barred the third class passengers from reaching the deck. Perhaps the band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and perhaps they didn't. Oddly, the most vivid memory I have of the movie (aside from Jack's death) is the way the massive ship went straight up and then straight down. Hopkinson explains how and why it happened this way.

Does the world need another Titanic book? Probably not, but this is the first nonfiction account I've read. So, I'm as guilty as the next person in believing James Cameron's version of events. Let's celebrate this vivid account, but understand that reading it is probably better.

[Stephan Rehorek took this photo of the "eisberg" likely encountered by the Titanic. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (where death years of both 1935 and 1975 are cited).] 

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
Narrated by Mark Bramhall, Peter Altschuler and others
Listening Library, 2012. 4:55

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