The sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the early hours of May 29, 1914 was considered "Canada's Titanic". The Empress of Ireland was one of two ships commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to facilitate travel between Great Britain and Canada. It launched on January 27, 1906 and because of the Titanic disaster a mere two years earlier had state-of-the-art passenger safety features. The Empress of Ireland had eleven water tight compartments, forty life boats and over 2000 life jackets including several hundred for children. It was also outfitted with an Marconi wireless telegraph and had an underwater sonar to detect icebergs.
On the evening of May 28, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was ready to weigh anchor. On board she had 1,477 people on board including eighty-seven first class passengers, two hundred fifty-three second class passengers and seven hundred seventeen third class passengers. Under the command of Captain Henry George Kendall, a twenty-five year veteran of the sea, the Empress of Ireland left Quebec for Liverpool, England at 4:30pm. The pilot, Adelard Bernier would guide the Empress down the Saint Lawrence and then leave the ship at Pointe-au-Pere as it continued on its voyage to Liverpool.
At 1:40am the lookout on the Empress of Ireland reported a ship running upriver on the starboard (right) side. Based on their positions and speed Captain Kendall believed the ships would pass each other on the starboard side without problems. However, when the Empress encountered a fog bank, Kendall stopped his ship and ordered two blasts of the ship's whistle to tell the other ship their location. Their reply told him that the two ships were much closer than he'd thought. Suddenly, the other ship, the Storstad, a coal runner, appeared on the starboard side and within minutes collided violently with the Empress of Ireland. The Storstad with its reinforced bow for sailing in ice, rammed the Empress of Ireland almost in its midsection. Although Kendall requested that the Storstad not reverse its engines it appeared to do so. It was 1:55am on the morning of May 29.
1012 people perished in the accident and out of one hundred thirty-eight children on board only four survived. More people perished in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland than in the Titanic. Four hundred and sixty-five survivors were plucked from the icy St. Lawrence River by the Storstad and other ships and taken to Rimouski, Quebec. A Royal Commission determined that the sinking was the result of error on the part of both ships' navigators. It was also further determined that the inability to close the water tight doors and the open portholes hastened the ship's demise.
Unspeakable tells the (fictional) story of Ellen Hardy, daughter and sole heiress of Hardy Estates, who is using the false name Ellie Ryan to protect her family name. The story is divided into numerous parts that begin with The Morning After, and then alternate between telling Ellie's story in flash back of how she came to be on the Empress of Ireland, the sinking of the ship and the three interviews she does with a reporter that further flesh out her story.
In The Morning After, Ellie Ryan is disembarking from the steamer, Lady Evelyn, that plucked her out of the frigid St. Lawrence River, cold and in shock. Ellie looks everywhere for "him" to no avail. He's not on the the Lady Evelyn, no does she see him on the quay at Rimouski. "Hundreds survived. He had. He had to." With the help of a local woman, Monique, Ellie searches the hospital and the nearby homes where survivors of the tragedy have been taken. At the quayside shed where the bodies are being stored, Ellie meets Wyatt Steele, a reporter for the New York Times who tells her that the world wants to hear her story. Furious, Ellie refuses to talk to him.
In flashback, in Four Months Before, the beginning backstory of Ellie is told. Ellen is living at Strandview Manor with her elderly great aunt, Geraldine, who informs her that she will be working as a stewardess on the Empress of Ireland. She will be taking along Geraldine's maid, Margaret (Meg) Bates. Ellen does not want to do this but she is given no choice by her aunt. They board the ship in Liverpool and are shown their cabin which they will share with two other girls, Kate and Gwen.
On her second crossing Ellie meets Jim Farrow, a stoker who has burned his arm. Ellie has been helping the ship's doctor, Dr. Grant and when Jim is brought in she treats and bandages his arm. Ellie is attracted to the muscular, coal dust dirty Jim in a way she can't explain, despite his hostile and angry manner.
In The Day After Ellen is on her way home, troubled by the memories of Meg's death and having to tell her grandfather, Bates, who is their butler. She is also wondering about what has happened to a man named Jim. On the train to Quebec she meets Wyatt Steele who takes down Gracie Hanagan's story. Gracie is one of only four children who survived. Once Gracie is finished, Steele begins questioning Ellen and it's evident he's done considerable research.He knows her
In Three Weeks After, it is June 1914 and Ellen has returned home to Strandview Manor to discover that Aunt Geraldine has passed away. The funeral is now over and the estate of G.B. Hardy, well known adventure novelist remains to be settled. Ellen is being hounded by reporters who want to interview Ellie Ryan and the fourteen year old maid, Lily mistakenly lets in none other than Wyatt Steele. Steele knows that Ellen Hardy used the name Ellie Ryan on the Empress of India and as Ellen is the only surviving stewardess from the Empress of Ireland, he wants to interview her. Wyatt lures Ellen into doing a series of interviews after revealing that he has the diary of Jim Farrow, the man Ellen fell in love with on the Empress of Ireland. Wyatt Steele tell Ellen that he will give her the journal page by page in exchange for all of her story.
From this point on the narrative alternates between the interviews Ellen gives to Wyatt and the various flashback chapters which include Four Months Before, Three Days Before, Two Days Before and Sailing Day. In the interviews Ellen reveals to Wyatt why she signed onto the Empress of Ireland but this section also reveals her aunt's motivations for sending her away, reveal Jim's thoughts from his journal. Ellen also recounts the sinking of the Empress of Ireland to Wyatt. The other flashback chapters tell about Ellen's developing relationship with Jim Farrow, the mysterious brooding stoker. Dividing the novel into sections seems uneven, but the story does come together seamlessly and the reader is never left feeling confused as to how the events unfolded. The tragedy of the Empress of India is woven into the story in a believable way and the chapters detailing the sinking of the ship are especially well done. Pignat portrays the strict moral code that existed in society at the turn of the 20th century, one that saw women severely punished even if they unintentionally stepped outside that code, while men suffered few consequences.
Unspeakable combines tragedy and romance to create an engaging high interest story that informs readers about a forgotten maritime disaster. The book takes its title from the unspeakable secrets the two main characters, Ellen Hardy and Jim Farrow have as well as the unspeakable tragedy of the sinking of the Empress of India. At times the novel does slip into the melodramatic regarding Jim's repeated walking away from Ellen because he believes he's not worthy of her, but the ultimate revelation of their secrets and their willingness to accept the other as they are, is touching.
Caroline Pignat has written a very readable, interesting piece of historical fiction that succeeds on all levels. Her detailed research into the sinking of the Empress of Ireland as well as this time period both in Canada and England is demonstrated by the novel's believable characters and the realistic portrayal of the sinking. Unspeakable should definitely be a Forest of Reading White Pine nominee in 2016.
Unspeakable by Caroline Pignat
Toronto: Razorbill 2014
The Canadian Museum of History has a webpage devoted to the Empress of Ireland tragedy.
This website, Empress of Ireland 1914/2014 Commemoration provides very detailed information about the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. The PBS website also has a detailed page on the disaster.