As we approach the one hundred year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, it is appropriate to mark the event by a reading of Nicola Pierce's debut novel The Spirit of the Titanic. The sinking of the RMS Titanic on the 15th of April 1912 claimed the lives of 1,517 people and remains one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Pierce's book centres on the experience of a fifteen year old boy - Samuel - whose fate is inextricably linked to that of the ill-fated steamship.
Samuel Joseph Scott was an early casualty of the Titanic, having perished in a fatal accident in the Harland & Wolff shipyard while the liner was being built. His death is the first to be linked to the Titanic, though seven others would die in work related accidents in the course of its construction. For Nicola Pierce however, Sam's story does not end in a Belfast shipyard. Two years after his death his ghost will accompany the passengers and crew of the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
This may seem like a gloomy beginning for a children's novel but Sam's narrative voice proves neither morose nor regretful. The boy who dreamed of being aboard the Titanic has had his wish come true, albeit in a slightly different manner than he might have anticipated. Pierce has created in Sam a likeable though isolated boy, a boy who has come to feel like a ghost in his own life due to his mother's inability to cope with his father's death. Musing on his death Sam tells the reader:
To be honest, I didn't feel too sad in my ghostly state, if that's what I was. In some ways it wasn't too different from the life I had led before I started working here, when nobody had taken much notice of me. So I didn't feel particularly lonely. What I did miss, however, was feeling that I mattered to someone.
Sam finds his sense of purpose in the next like through his ability to help others. It is his acceptance of his lot and fascination with the glorious liner that propels the narrative forward and makes for such an enjoyable reading experience. We are told that the Titantic is his "favourite place in the whole world" and he delightfully explores her decks, popping in for dinner with the toffs in first class or attending a birthday party for Oscar the Post Office worker. The device of this ghostly narrator is simple and effective - Sam's first-person omniscience is never questioned. Within the world of the book, his ability to walk through walls and listen in on the conversations of the ship's passengers is entirely plausible.
One of the challenges facing a novel of this kind is the ability to add suspense in a story to which everyone already knows the ending. To this end, Sam's self-appointed mission to help others creates the required tension. We meet the working class family of Jim, Isobel and their two children Joseph and baby Sarah dream of a new life in America. When the ship hits an iceberg, their tickets in steerage reduce the likelihood that they will get off the ship alive. Sam must get his adopted family to the lifeboats on time.
The novel's characters are concrete and memorable. We feel the crushing guilt of ship's designer Thomas Andrews and Lookout Frederick Fleet, the stolid determination of telegraphist Harold Bride and Second Officer Charles Lightoller. Younger readers in particular will enjoy the equanimity of Chief Baker Charles Joughin who initially opts to hide from the danger with a bottle of whiskey before deciding to fight for his life and that of his new pet spider, George.
The effective combination of foreshadowing and supernatural elements within the novel make for gripping storytelling for readers who know all too well that their character's dark presentiments are not unfounded. The tension is the novel is precisely that we do know what is going to happen next. Sam's own death is caused when a terrifying vision of the hordes of dead passengers cause him to fall from his ladder in fright. As the novel progresses we learn that the more sensitive souls aboard ship can feel his ghostly presence and that children and animals are also susceptible. His ability to act is significantly curtailed by his non-corporeal state and yet Sam's actions make all the difference in the end.
Nicola Pierce does not shy from the darker elements of the tale. People die, sometimes in horrible ways. But The Spirit of the Titanic is also a celebration of life, a celebration of the generosity of certain male passengers in upholding a "woman and children to the lifeboats first" policy, a celebration of the band that played on, a celebration of kinship and great-heartedness discovered in the darkest moments of an individual's life. The conclusion is moving and full of hope as Sam's acts of selflessness lead to an exorcism of his own private griefs also.
The book is beautifully presented from the Dave Hopkins' sepia tinged cover illustration (visible through the semi-transparent body of Sam) to the wonderfully evocative sketches at the chapter heads. The narrative is further broken up by the inclusion of telegrams, fragments of payer, snatches of musical notation and passenger postcards. Teachers may also appreciate Peter Heaney's Teaching Guide for the book which O'Brien Press publishers have made available here. As a work of historical fiction for children, The Spirit of the Titanic is both exciting and accessible, guaranteed to bring this tragic event in history alive.