Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of new books about the RMS Titanic over the past year or two. Equally unsurprisingly, I have read several of them. I have long been a Titanic enthusiast, if one can use that word in the context of such a horrible disaster. I read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember many years ago, and have seen various movie versions of the Titanic‘s story, including the 1958 A Night to Remember (which you should totally watch sometime; it features an excellent Kenneth More as Lightoller and a very young David McCallum as Harold Bride. and various now-famous British actors like Sean Connery and Desmond Llewelyn as uncredited crew members). I eagerly followed Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreckage in 1985, and I have enjoyed various fictional accounts involving the Titanic, from sources as diverse as Clive Cussler (Raise the Titanic) and Connie Willis (Passage).
Anyway, last year I read Allan Wolf’s The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, a version of the voyage using fictional statements from various people on the voyage (not to mention the iceberg itself). When I picked up Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster last week, I think I was expecting something similar. In fact, I had it in my head that I had read somewhere that some of the “voices” in this book were fictional. But no.
In fact, despite Hopkinson’s statement in her foreword that the book would be an introduction to “the disaster and just a few of the people who survived,” I found that it was an extremely well-written and compelling overview of the whole Titanic story. In fact, there were several sources that were new to me, including Frankie Goldsmith’s story (published in 2007) and the British Wreck Commission’s report.
Last spring, around the centennial of the disaster, I had read in the paper about Frank Browne, S.J., who traveled on the Titanic from Southampton to Queensland, and took some wonderful photographs, some of which only resurfaced in 1986. In fact, the story of Frank Browne involves the only quibble I have with this book–and it’s a minor one, although it does raise an issue of how we deal with the accuracy issue in nonfiction books for young people.
Frank Browne, as Hopkinson tells us, was a teacher in 1912, and he was studying to be a priest. The summary of his life in the “People in this Book” section tells us that he was ordained a priest in 1915. And, as I look back over the text, I see that Hopkinson never actually refers to him as “Father Browne” except on page 21, when she says, “Years later, Frank (or Father Frank Browne) recounted . . . ” This is perfectly correct: he was Frank at the time, and Father Frank Browne when he was telling the story years later. Yet there are several photo captions that refer to him as “Father Browne”: page 31, “Father Browne’s first class stateroom on the Titanic”; page 108: “This photo of the Titanic’s bridge and one of its lifeboats . . . was taken by Father Browne.”
Page 20 is a reproduction of the letter from the White Star Line which apparently served as Browne’s ticket. It is addressed to The Rev. F.M. Browne, S.J. and begins, “Dear Father Browne.” The caption reads, “Frank Browne, a young Irishman who was due to be ordained in 1915 and also known as Father Browne, was given a ticket . . .”
Okay, so Hopkinson clearly knows that Browne was not a priest at the time of the sailing. But it’s not exactly true to say that he was “also known as Father Browne,” despite the fact that the White Star Line got it wrong. People get it wrong all the time, especially with Jesuits, since they use the “S.J.” after their names from the time of first vows, at the end of the novitiate period, and have such a long period of formation. I know I’m being overly sensitive about this, but it seems to me that the historian’s responsibility is to indicate when sources got something wrong. She could have captioned the ticket with something like, “Frank Browne, a young Irishman who was due to be ordained in 1915, and was incorrectly referred to here as Father Browne, was given a ticket . . .” And the photo captions could simply have referred to Frank Browne, or Frank Browne, S.J.
As I said, minor quibble. If I were on an award committee, it would definitely not be enough for me to disqualify the book. In fact, I could make a good argument that all of the captions I object to here are technically correct, when looked at in a certain way.
But it does raise the question for me about where to draw the line: how bad does it have to be to disqualify a book from award contention? I remember a nonfiction book from the year I was on the Printz committee that had what was clearly a typo in a photo caption: two numbers were transposed in a date (1973 instead of 1793 or something like that). It was wrong, of course, but it was obviously a typo, and something that could be easily corrected in a later edition. We noticed it, but it was immaterial in our discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
But back to Hopkinson’s book: to me, this book is a great example of the kind of writing I hoped we would see after YALSA established the Excellence in Nonfiction Award. It’s really aimed at teens (not younger kids, as so much youth nonfiction is). Like Bomb, it lets the events themselves, and the participants’ own words, carry the story. It’s full of interesting back matter and great illustrations. I’m not personally crazy about the sans-serif font, but the design of the book in general is lovely, and I like the trim size.
I think Bomb is still leading the nonfiction pack in my mind, but this one is awfully good. What do you think?