20 February 2020

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord


Never in my life have I watched James Cameron's Titanic... until of course I last visited Meg, and as her husband said "I'm not going to bed until I see that ship sink." We convinced Scott to save the three-hour-plus epic until daylight hours and ended up watching it Thanksgiving Monday. I love a love story almost as much as I love a disaster movie, so naturally I was a fan. Michael had lent me A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic a month or so earlier than I watched the movie, and I'm glad I waited to read the book until now.

A Night to Remember was published in 1955 and is a short (208 pages), direct account of the Titanic's sinking. My saviour Nathaniel Philbrick (author of my beloved In the Heart of the Sea) wrote the introduction to the 2004 edition I was reading. He essentially stresses how bare bones the book is, but in a good way. Author Walter Lord doesn't need to rely on flowery writing, he knows the facts are just as chilly when stated plainly.

But legends are part of great events, and if they help keep alive the memory of gallant self-sacrifice, they serve their purpose."

The book starts almost immediately with the iceberg within sight of the two lookouts. I actually liked that Lord didn't spend tons of pages talking about the history of the ship or the process behind building it. Within 30 pages of the book the ship is already in deep trouble:


And so it went. No bells or sirens. No general alarm. But all over the Titanic, in one way or another, the word was passed." 



Lord ends the book by explaining his process of writing, especially in the acknowledgments. He met with survivors, relatives of those aboard the ship, and crew. He mentions that while the conversations he writes at the time of the sinking can't possibly be verbatim, they are from multiple sources and are as close to the real words as possible. Overall, I wasn't that interested in the conversations crew members had... I found Lord's storytelling more compelling when survivors were reflecting on the disaster:


Little things too could return to haunt a person at a time like this. Edith Evans remembered a fortune-teller who once told her to 'beware of the water.' William T Stead was nagged by a dream about somebody throwing cats out a top-story window. Charles Hays had prophesied just a few hours earlier that the time would come for 'the greatest and most appalling of all disasters at sea.'"


Again, one thing Lord is expert at is details. There's a full page where he just lists what passengers threw on for clothes when they heard the ship was going down.

I think it's pretty obvious that the Leo and Kate movie version is waaaaay more enjoyable than reading this book, but at only 200 pages it was worth checking out. There were some elements of the movie that I wondered if were true. I know rich people are horrendous but second guessed if they really locked third-class passengers below deck. Lord does mention multiple times throughout the book how people were treated differently depending on their type of ticket. And the most disturbing part of this book was when he talked about casualties in relation to class:


The statistics suggest who they were - the Titanic's casualty list included four of 143 First Class women (three by choice) ... 15 of 93 Second Class women ... and 81 of 179 Third Class women. Not to mention the children. Except for Lorraine Allison, all 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children."


Even more disturbing was that no one seemed to bother pursuing this hard in court.
Kate and Leo :''''''(
To sum up how I feel about this book, it really needs to go hand-in-hand with Titanic the movie. The movie does a much better job at showing you the mass loss of life and the horrors everyone onboard had to witness. BUT, the book did deal more with the aftermath of the Titanic's sinking, and how it effected society:


The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the 'unsinkable ship' - perhaps man's greatest engineering achievement - going down the first time it sailed."


In the end, I'd recommend this to any Titanic fanatic. It's so short that it's hard not to justify breezing through. I could read this book twice in the same time it takes to watch Cameron's movie!

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