New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Lifeboat'

Posted Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Lifeboat'
by Charlotte Rogan
Back Bay Books, 2012
278 pages, $14.99
ISBN 978-0-316-18591-2

reviewed by William D. Bushnell

When newlywed bride Grace Winter leaves England with her husband, Henry, aboard the passenger steamship Empress Alexandra bound for America in 1914, she never dreamed that she would soon be faced with the most fateful moral dilemma.
Survival at sea is the main theme of Charlotte Rogan’s excellent debut novel, "The Lifeboat," with a motley collection of shipwreck survivors in an overcrowded lifeboat having to decide who lives, who dies, and most important, who decides?
Rogan lives in Westport, Conn., and has created a stunning tale of high seas adventure, exploring the visceral dynamics of self-preservation among passengers adrift in the North Atlantic.
Rogan’s fiction is well-crafted, suspenseful, and loaded with emotion and the dark images and selfish motives of people facing certain death unless drastic action is taken. The question then becomes: If a few must be sacrificed to save many, who decides who is to die?
The Empress Alexandra suddenly catches fire and sinks at sea with many passengers and crew lost, a lucky few adrift in the few lifeboats launched before the vessel sank.  Grace’s lifeboat is only 23 feet long, built to carry 30 but overloaded with 40 people. Only one ship’s officer, Mr. Hardie, is aboard to provide leadership, discipline and seamanship skills.
The eight men and 32 women quickly suffer from fear, shock and exposure, as Mr. Hardie rations the boat’s meager emergency food and water supplies. For 21 days the boat drifts, leaking badly, and the strain is too much for some. Several people die, a few go mad, and the others realize they will die too unless the boat is lightened, and there is only one way to do that: Some people will have to go overboard and die of drowning, either voluntarily or otherwise.
Grace tells this story throughout, with her own explanations and justifications of how and why people acted as they did, the disharmony and mistrust among the survivors, the breakdown of discipline, the conflicts between men and women, between man and nature, and the dangerous class rivalries that surfaced. She says it best: “It was not the sea that was cruel, but the people.”  And the reader will have to decide if she is coy and innocent or scheming and manipulative.
The scene where Mr. Hardie and the other men draw straws to see who will be sacrificed is especially gripping and tense, but later scenes become frightening as people take desperate measures and force others to go overboard to die. Some would call that murder.
By the time the lifeboat is discovered by a passing vessel, only 28 people are still alive, including Grace. Once back in Boston, Grace and two other women are charged with premeditated murder for their actions in the lifeboat. The sensational trial is a masterpiece of suspenseful and exciting fiction, and the final verdicts at their murder trial are shocking.
Rogan also includes fascinating and mysterious subplots: Henry’s curious actions just before the ship sank, Mr. Hardie’s obsessive hatred of another ship’s officer, and the ship’s strange cargo of gold bullion.
This is a first-rate novel, but this is not an original theme. Two marvelous motion pictures have already dealt effectively with the gritty subject of lifeboat survival at sea. The 1944 film “Lifeboat” starring Tallulah Bankhead and Walter Slezak (story by John Steinbeck), and the 1957 film “Abandon Ship” starring Tyrone Power (based on a true story) both cleverly and colorfully examined the depths of human self-preservation in extreme circumstances.
Rogan’s treatment of this moral conundrum is smart and sharply presented, offering penetrating insight into the moral decision-making of men and women who must decide who will survive.
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