In the summer of 1914, Grace, an impoverished young woman from a formerly affluent family, elopes with her wealthy catch, banker Henry Winter, and boards an ocean liner called the Empress Alexandra. When an explosion engulfs the ship in flames, Grace is one of the fortunate few to secure a seat in a lifeboat. Due to the panic and chaos aboard and the rapid spreading of the fire, in which all the lifeboats on the starboard side are burned, Grace’s boat is badly overloaded.
As they drift away from the scene of the disaster, hoping help is on the way, the lifeboat rides so slow that water slops in. To make matters worse, the weather is worsening, and as the days pass, without rescue, their meager supplies of hardtack biscuits and water dwindle.
A power struggle soon erupts in the little boat between Mrs. Ursula Grant, a society matron, and John Hardie, an experienced, and sometimes necessarily ruthless, sailor, with all the passengers being forced to take sides. The hard choices begin almost at once, when they have to leave a small child to drown and beat away desperate swimmers and continue throughout the twenty one days they are adrift upon the
Atlantic. As the lifeboat drifts on, the survivors endure
panic, hysteria, and paranoia, sunburn, pouring rain, the difficulties of
discreetly dealing with urination and menstruation, and having to catch and eat
raw fish and dead birds fallen from the sky in order to survive. Their hands
blister from rowing and dipping them in the salty water brings only more pain
not relief. When some die, their bodies are put overboard to lighten the load,
but a time inevitably comes when someone must die if the others are to have a
chance at life. And when rescue finally comes, Grace is among those who must
justify their actions in a courtroom.
If I wasn't already up all night, this book would have definitely kept me awake. Being a Titanic fanatic, I love reading about ocean liners, and mysteries and disasters at sea. The characters in this book faced a very difficult dilemma no one should ever have to face. In many ways, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Abandon Ship!, a rarely seen classic starring Tyrone Power (if you can catch in on Turner Classic Movies it’s worth watching), the characters in that book face the same situation when during World War II the ocean liner they are traveling upon hits a mine and Tyrone Power, as the lone ship’s officer in an overcrowded lifeboat has to decide who will live and who will die and later have to account for it. This book was like Titanic, after the sinking, meets Abandon Ship! and Mrs. Grant and her battle of wills with Mr. Hardie was like a harsher, less likable version of Molly Brown. I highly recommend this one for a tense, historical page-turner that will really make you stop and think and ponder who is right and who is wrong and what, if you were in the same situation, would you do.