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A Night to Remember Mass Market Paperback – June 2, 1997
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James Cameron's 1997 Titanic movie is a smash hit, but Walter Lord's 1955 classic remains in some ways unsurpassed. Lord interviewed scores of Titanic passengers, fashioning a gripping you-are-there account of the ship's sinking that you can read in half the time it takes to see the film. The book boasts many perfect movie moments not found in Cameron's film. When the ship hits the berg, passengers see "tiny splinters of ice in the air, fine as dust, that give off myriads of bright colors whenever caught in the glow of the deck lights." Survivors saw dawn reflected off other icebergs in a rainbow of shades, depending on their angle toward the sun: pink, mauve, white, deep blue--a landscape so eerie, a little boy tells his mom, "Oh, Muddie, look at the beautiful North Pole with no Santa Claus on it."
A Titanic funnel falls, almost hitting a lifeboat--and consequently washing it 30 yards away from the wreck, saving all lives aboard. One man calmly rides the vertical boat down as it sinks, steps into the sea, and doesn't even get his head wet while waiting to be successfully rescued. On one side of the boat, almost no males are permitted in the lifeboats; on the other, even a male Pekingese dog gets a seat. Lord includes a crucial, tragically ironic drama Cameron couldn't fit into the film: the failure of the nearby ship Californian to save all those aboard the sinking vessel because distress lights were misread as random flickering and the telegraph was an early wind-up model that no one wound.
Lord's account is also smarter about the horrifying class structure of the disaster, which Cameron reduces to hollow Hollywood formula. No children died in the First and Second Class decks; 53 out of 76 children in steerage died. According to the press, which regarded the lower-class passengers as a small loss to society, "The night was a magnificent confirmation of women and children first, yet somehow the loss rate was higher for Third Class children than First Class men." As the ship sank, writes Lord, "the poop deck, normally Third Class space ... was suddenly becoming attractive to all kinds of people." Lord's logic is as cold as the Atlantic, and his bitter wit is quite dry.
"Devotion, gallantry--Benjamin Guggenheim changing to evening clothes to meet death; Mrs. Isador Straus clinging to her husband, refusing to get in a lifeboat; Arthur Ryerson giving his life belt to his wife's maid-- it is a book to remember."
-- Chicago Tribune
"One of the most exciting books of this or any year."
-- The New York Times
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The book is, how should I put this?, "polite." Nobody is blamed or demeaned openly, with only one or two exceptions, and those only by implication. Bruce Ismay, one of the executives of the White Star Line, was evidently a big pain in the ass. A couple of myths are done away with.
Almost as interesting as the disaster itself, in which some 1500 people died, is Lord's description of the customs of the time regarding social class. "Women and children first." Correct, except that the highest percentage of women and children saved were from first class, the next highest percentage from second class, and the least from third class passengers in steerage who were mostly poor immigrants. Everyone cares about the unsinkable Molly Brown but nobody hears about a hypothetical Paddy O'Reilly who made a living digging clods of peat out of the bogs and hardly had a shoe to his foot.
The calamity has been committed to celluloid several times, including a German version from the 1940s in which the hero is a German. The first well-known rendering, from the early 50s, stars Kenneth Moore as Second Officer Lightoller as the rational and efficient central figure. He wasn't as compassionate in real life, according to Lord's version. He interpreted "women and children first" as "women and children only",. so some boats were lowered with spaces left over.
It's a good film, though, and sticks most closely to Lord's book. Another film, the Hollywood "Titanic", appeared about the same time, as much a disaster as the actual sinking. Avoid it. Cameron's smash movie, the most recent "Titanic," is the most expensive and splashy, so to speak. Those are its only redeeming features.
Read this book instead.
The book is based on newspaper articles written prior to and after the tragedy. Also, the author interviewed the survivors still living in the early 1950's, prior to publishing this book.
The writing is straightforward. There are no conversations "recreated" by the author, nor does he embellish things for dramatic effect. This book is the retelling of the tragedy from those who were there. There are conflicting stories because, as is true with eye witness accounts, everyone sees and interprets things through their own lenses.
The style of writing is dry. However, the magnitude of the tragedy was so large, and the continuing fascination so great, that this book is well worth reading. Over 2,000 passengers were on the Titanic on its maiden voyage. Seven hundred survived.
Most recent customer reviews
Now I'm reading it again, (I'm 62 and it's even more riveting than the first read).
Really fascinating book.