Monday, June 12, 2017

Marriage at Sea

Another Saturday at my summer job. It was super busy due to the speedboat races, so it's only appropriate with all the boat talk that my reading materials should also be boat-centered. And what better boat than the most famous ship of all time?

Usually I make a point to watch Titanic in April (the anniversary of the sinking) but I didn't get around to it this year, and the Titanic has always been one of my favorite parts of history. It's wholly tragic, but it proves that truth is always stranger than fiction.

I've been meaning to read this book since we first added it to the collection a few years ago. Every time I picked it up and started, I'd either get distracted or I'd end up giving it to a student or staff member who wanted to read it.

Allan Wolf's novel in verse is based on real historical figures; some are the well known ones such as Margaret Brown aka Unsinkable Molly Brown, and others who are not, such as Jamila Nicola-Yarred, a Lebanese immigrant girl traveling with her young brother. Of course there are some liberties taken, and Wold provides thirty pages of notes, explaining which liberties he took with which characters' stories. He also makes some brave narrative choices, such as having a rat narrate several of the poems; they're pretty much just about finding food though. I guess rats don't have the rich interior lives I always imagined.  .  .There are also several poems narrated by the iceberg itself, and the personification of gigantic lumps of frozen freshwater injects new vitality into a story that everyone already knows.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but notice the theme of marriage that connects the poems, like a red thread that runs through a tapestry.

"Marriage without struggle is like an unfired clay pot. It is easily made, but it will not stand the test of time." That line is what first got me thinking about this theme, because it relates so well to a conversation I had recently with a friend at work. That quote is from one of the sections focalized through the ship's captain EJ Smith. As he thinks those words, he is talking to the ship's first class passengers, a parade of mistresses and unions arranged for material gain. "Thank God Eleanor and I were born poor so that the concept of fidelity was allowed to take root in us."

And yet John Jacob Astor's poems are equally thought provoking in regard to this thread. Millionaire Astor divorced his wife Ava and to compound that scandal, remarried within a year. Madeleine was pregnant soon after. He criticizes society's priority of "appearances" rather than actual happiness, and muses: "I divorced a woman who despised me; I married a woman who adored me. Society calls that common? I call that common sense."

The ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, writes that his only mistress is Titanic herself, and that his wife is very understanding.

Harold Bride, the wireless operator, receives birthday messages during his morning shift, and one of them is "To a long life and a pretty wife."

Michel Marcel Navratil, a tailor who assumes the name Louis Hoffman, in order to flee with his children away from his wife.

Jamila Nicola-Yarred wonders if her mother has already found her an American husband.

And as the grand ship begins her long descent for the ocean floor, little Frankie Goldsmith watches as a man hands his wedding ring to a woman in the life boat, with the direction "Give this to my wife."

I wouldn't have expected such a strong theme of marriage, but it makes the book a thoughtful read for any adult who enjoy historical fiction and/or novels in verse.

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