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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Unspeakable, by Caroline Pignat. Razorbill, Penguin. 2014. $11.99 ages 12 and up

"Monday came and went, and Steele never showed up for our second interview. Instead, I got a note saying he had to do an interview up north. This whole deal with Steele was a bad idea, especially if he was going to bring my father into it. Wasn't it enough that I told him about the ship? What did it matter how I ended up on it? Or why? Those were my secrets .. "

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will know that I am keen on historical fiction, and I am especially indebted to Caroline Pignat for creating incredibly moving stories about the people whose lives are changed forever by events beyond their control.

In the early hours of May 29, 1914, the ocean liner Empress of Ireland, bound from Quebec City to Liverpool, U.K., was struck midship by the Norwegian coal freighter Storstad in heavy fog. It took just 14 minutes for the Empress to sink into the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River, sending 1,012 of the ship’s 1,477 passengers and crew to their deaths. All of this has happened before we meet Ellie Ryan (also known as Ellen Hardy) in the harrowing opening scene.

"    This isn't real. It's a nightmare. It has to be.
     But try as I might, I couldn't wake. I couldn't forget. And
 I couldn't stop shaking.
     I thought that the long night would never end. That I'd never
see the sun again, never feel it on my face or the solid ground
beneath my bare feet. I staggered forward on my trembling
legs and stopped for a moment to reassure myself. But nothing
felt steady. And neither the sun on my head nor the stranger's
shirt that reached my bare thighs did anything to keep away
the chill."

It is only after she returns to Liverpool to her Great-Aunt Geraldine's house in time for her funeral that we begin to learn Ellie's full story. On her own, she must begin to deal with a gamut of feelings that threaten to overpower her ... grief, shame, even guilt. So, when journalist Wyatt Steele shows up at her door wanting to know more about a survivor's story, she refuses to talk about it. She wants nothing to do with him until he also tells her that he has her beloved Jim's journal. Wanting to know about the young ship's stoker who captured her eye and her heart on board the ship, she reluctantly agrees to share her story. Steele will give her bits from Jim's journal as long as she cooperates.

Through a series of vignettes we learn Ellie's story. As she opens up to the reporter about her life before the tragedy, we learn that she grew up in an affluent family, brought 'shame' to her widowed father and was sent from his house to live with her great-aunt. Wanting Ellen to learn about real life, Aunt Geraldine had signed her up to be a stewardess on the Empress of Ireland, feeling that it would broaden her experiences and make her a better person. In fact, that is exactly what it did. As she shares her stories with Steele, she feels a sense of relief from all that has happened in her very short life. Although she does not know if Jim is still alive, she begins to find her way to a new life on her own.

This is an outstanding work of historical fiction. While we learn about Ellie and her life, we also a great deal about the life she leads just prior to WWI, about society itself and how the sinking of the Empress altered so many lives. It is a love story, a story about family and society, and a tragic telling of an important historical event. Beautifully written, with pacing and plotting that will entertain and intrigue her audience, and exceptional characters who will live long in the reader's memory.


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