Last year, I invited Stephanie Sammartino McPherson to write about her experience researching and writing Iceberg, Right Ahead!, her TFCB book about the Titanic. With the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the ship upon us this weekend (April 14-15), here’s another chance to read her thoughts.
A book about the Titanic. I approached the task with trepidation as well as excitement. Some events are so cataclysmic that they are almost unthinkable. The Titanic seemed to be one of those. Although I knew a good bit about the Titanic, I hadn’t even seen the Cameron film – one of the top grossing movies of all times. I didn’t think I could bear it.
Then I started reading. From the beginning, I was hooked. The story of the biggest ship in the world, which sank on its maiden voyage, is heartrending but also compelling and fascinating. The vast majority of passengers and crew members responded to calamity with courage and dignity. It was their individual stories that got to me – Ida Strauss (above right) who refused to enter a lifeboat without her husband; baker Charles Joughin, who stuffed bread into the boats; the musicians who continued to play as the ship went down (below right).
The more I read, the more vivid it became. And there was plenty to read! Over eight hundred books have been written about the Titanic. And yes, I did steel myself to watch Cameron’s fictional movie as well as others.
All the survivors had died by the time I began my research. But thanks to first-person accounts and to historians like Walter Lord who had interviewed many survivors decades earlier, I was able to piece together a number of personal stories. As is usually the case, one of the hardest parts was deciding what to leave out. Take passenger Minnie Coutts, who refused to believe there were no life vests left; who refused to wait for directions but persuaded a crew member to escort her from the maze of third-class corridors to the boat deck; who argued with the officer who wanted to refuse her nine-year-old son entrance to a life boat. The story of this “ordinary” hero continues to haunt and comfort me. How could I possibly leave it out?
Minnie did not live to see the discovery of the Titanic on the ocean floor, but a number of other survivors did. Some had spent years trying to forget the Titanic. It still gives me goose bumps to think of what the discovery must have meant for them.
Even seasoned oceanographer Robert Ballard (above left), the American leader of the discovery expedition, was surprised by the depth of emotion he experienced. Relying on some of his writings, I tried to capture the intellectual challenge as well as reverence he shared with crew and colleagues.
By the time my editor Jean Reynolds and I were finished with this manuscript, I wasn’t ready to let go. I felt saturated with Titanic facts and lore. The ship had even begun to invade my dreams. As the one-hundredth anniversary of the tragedy approaches, I’ll continue to watch the latest specials and follow the newest theories. In a strange, way, the men, women, and children of the Titanic have almost become a part of me. They still matter. They always will.