The story opens with twelve year old Avis Dolphin arriving at Pier 54 in New York City, preparing to board the Lusitania. Accompanying her are two nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith from her mother's nursing home in St. Thomas, Ontario. Avis doesn't want to leave her home to travel to England where she will see her grandparents in Worcester and study at a school there. She feels even worse when she overhears a conversation between two photographers attempting to photograph the famous millionaire, Mr. Vanderbilt who has arrived to board the ship. They are discussing the possibility that the Lusitania might be in danger of being attacked by the Germans who have sent a warning out that the sea around the British Isles is a war zone. However Hilda reassures her that Mr. Sumner of the Cunard Lines has indicated that the Lusitania is too fast for the German U-boats. They try to comfort her by pointing out all the wealthy travellers who are boarding the Lusitania, indicating that they believe the voyage will be a safe one.
At 12:20pm the Lusitania pulls away from the dock and sets out for Liverpool, England. The next morning finds Avis feeling unwell and seasick. Unable to eat breakfast she walks to the deck in the hopes the fresh air will help her. There she meets a kindly Scottish gentleman named Ian Holbourn who notices that Avis feels unwell and encourages her to join him for a walk. Hilda recognizes him as Professor Ian Holbourn, the Laird of Foula, a small rocky island in the western Scottish Shetlands. To distract Avis from her sea sickness Professor Holbourn begins by telling her some facts about the Lusitania and also about his wife Marion and his three boys. He invites her to visit his family at Foula. They decide to explore the first class section of the ship, and are amazed at its opulence.
Professor Holbourn has told Avis that legend holds that his island of Foula was once inhabited by a giant and a bogeyman. Avis is enthralled by this and asks the Professor to tell her more about the giant and the bogeyman which he does in bits and pieces as they journey across the Atlantic. Professor Holbourn is concerned about safety on the Lusitania, and when his witnesses a poorly devised life-boat drill he questions the sailors. This brings him into conflict with Captain Turner who feels that lifeboat drills would only upset the passengers.
Meanwhile Hilda and Sarah spend their time flirting with the eligible men in second class. Sarah has snared a boy named Peter whom she meets every day in the dining room while Hilda makes friends with Richard and Jane who are twins. As the voyage continues, Avis finds herself enjoying the sea, Professor Holbourn prepares to give his talk on his trip to Iceland, and Hilda and Sarah have a falling out. But everyone becomes anxious once the coast of Ireland is spotted and the warning from Germany is remembered.
"We climb over broken tables, chairs, lights, dishes, ripped jackets, skirts, underwear and tablecloths. We stumble over a pair of boots and a headless doll.
The injured are everywhere -- sobbing, moaning -- but we can't help them. We can't stop. I shudder as we step over a woman. I know her! She's Harold's wife, Mildred. Harold, who I met on the deck just two days ago. Harold, who can't swim. And here's his wife. Is she unconscious -- or dead? We can't even stop to help her."
All of this makes her narrative both realistic and believable.
Wishinsky uses the artwork of Willow Dawson to tell Professor Holbourn's story of a girl shipwrecked on Foula and who encounters a giant and a bogeyman. These graphic novel panels appear throughout the novel and seem somewhat incongruous. Dawson's unique black and white illustrations do not capture the professor's story in a way that makes the tale appealing. It is the weakest part of this novel. A more substantial folk story illustrated with colour panels might have been more effective. Both the Professor and Avis seem like individuals with a vibrant imagination and the panels could have reflected that.
Nevertheless, Avis Dolphin is a fascinating, well told story of an important historical event that should appeal to younger readers. The book is in a larger format with larger type that lends itself to easy reading. Frieda Wishinsky provides an informative Author's Note at the back which details some facts about World War I, Avis Dolphin and Professor Ian Holbourn and about Foula.
For more information on Avis Dolphin please check out the following:
The Lusitania Resource: Miss Avis Gertrude Dolphin
For those interested in the Island of Foula, check out Foula Heritage and also Shetland Foula
Avis Dolphin by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Willow Dawson
Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press 2015