The Lifeboat: A Novel

  • Charlotte Rogan
  • Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown and Company
  • 288 pp.

A novel focusing on the criminal trial of a shipwreck survivor and her stories of life, death and endurance on an early-1900s lifeboat.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Robelen

Tales of shipwrecks and disasters at sea have steadily, if morbidly, fascinated people for millennia. Terrifying yet strangely satisfying, these stories range from “Gilgamesh” to Robinson Crusoe to The Lord of the Flies. Even today, our 100-year-old passion for anything connected with the sinking of HMS Titanic and the 1,500 souls who perished with her shows no sign of flagging.

Within the canon of seafaring misfortune, lifeboat tales present an impressive subgenre of their own. As far-flung as the flooded earth of Genesis, the oceanless Andes of Alive or the uniquely uncharted waters of Life of Pi, they often are steeped in loneliness and anguish, but gilded in courage and nobility. I, for one, have never forgotten the power of Oscar Schisgall’s 1,000-word parable “Take Over Bos’n,” a gem of a story I read in middle school, which tells of 10 desperate men on a 19th-century lifeboat facing their final day of drinking water.

But what drives us back to these tales of suffering and fortitude in extreme conditions, where hope is at once an indulgence and an obligation? Are we held in the grip of the ultimate question of ethics and survival, “What would you do?” Do we need continued affirmation of the universality of our basest instincts? Or are we simply unable to resist a “ripping yarn?”

It is these questions that writer and architect Charlotte Rogan sets out to explore in her carefully- plotted and cleverly-paced debut novel The Lifeboat. Through her narrator, Grace Winter, 22 years old, 10 weeks married and six weeks widowed, we hear the story of a small boat stranded for 21 days in the North Atlantic in late summer 1914. However, the book actually begins at a later point and has a larger focus. Having come through the ordeal, just barely alive, Grace finds herself again at the mercy of tidal forces, for she is now on trial for her life for her part in a death aboard the lifeboat. Grace’s “memory book” of the 21 days, prepared to help her defense, forms the literary premise of the book.

Events start with a literal bang as the ocean liner Empress Alexandra, unfortunately named for the ill-fated wife of Russian Czar Nicholas, suffers a major explosion in the center of the hull.  Hundreds swarm the decks in search of escape. Grace and her wealthy new husband, Henry, have been secretly married in London and are heading home to New York to meet his potentially disgruntled family. But Henry can arrange a spot only for Grace, as the last of 39 escapees on Lifeboat 14, an open cutter provisioned with four oars, a tarp, and sundry limited supplies. Under the direction of an experienced and able-bodied ship’s mate, John Hardie, three men and one woman row away frantically from the sinking ship, moving ruthlessly through the sickening, thickening soup of bodies and debris, beating back any swimmers attempting to board. The boat is full.

Over the 21 days before their rescue, those on Grace’s boat experience physical and spiritual evolution and devolution, death and survival. Hardie establishes the rules and protocols of food, water, waste disposal, and safety aboard the rudimentary, unsheltered craft. Though far outnumbered by the women, the men clearly run the ship and hold the power.

Debates crest and ebb. Seeds of anger and distrust take root. Moments of exquisite faith give way to bleakest despair, when rain, a true gift from God, becomes a mammoth storm inflicted by a vengeful Poseidon. Alliances form and crack, foreshadowing the convolutions of the brewing Great War.

With dwindling supplies and the boat sitting dangerously low, the passengers come to believe Hardie’s early admonishment: “Unless we lighten the load, we’ll sink like a bloody stone.” Indeed, the idea of sacrifice recurs in a spectrum of circumstances, even echoed later by Grace’s attorney. Suspicion among the mostly female passengers at Hardie’s motives and whisperings that he is hiding a treasure add to the tension and mystery aboard. But there is no mystery about one thing: not everyone who climbed into Lifeboat 14 will climb out three weeks later.

Grace delivers her chronicle of the voyage with unapologetic honesty. Prior to her marriage, sudden financial and emotional devastation to her family had left Grace with perforated ethics and a burning need for future security. She manages a fairytale courtship with Henry but that and all else is wrecked by the fates, first on the sea and then on shore. She ruminates, “For one naïve moment, I had all that I needed — more than I needed; but that, too, had been only a pleasant illusion. I wondered if all a person could hope for was illusion and luck.” But, despite constantly questioning her own motives and beliefs, Grace resolves to answer to no one but herself, loose ends and all.

Rogan’s sepia-toned prose evokes a world of an earlier time, planting sufficient factual and historic evidence to support the circumstances without drowning readers in period trivia. The privation of the situation is never far away and includes a fearsome description of the torture of thirst. The carefully juxtaposed timelines of the lifeboat and the trial show off the author’s gifts for timing and tempo.

But readers should take care to keep from rushing forward so fast as to miss some fine passages such as, “I would never again think of nature as a garden for man … of power as the thing Henry possessed when he pocketed the keys to the vault or the authority wielded by … the magistrate in charge of our case.” The author’s forays into philosophy, morals, feminism and theology make all the more impressive her ability to keep up a high-wire tension that ultimately delivers an old-fashioned page-turner, with surprises in every chapter.

The Lifeboat is at once a thrilling high seas adventure, a stirring survival story, a subtly rendered inquiry into the natures of humanity and strength, and a tautly executed courtroom drama. But reader beware: life is not always as it seems in this world and the book has a prism-like quality that allows scenes to change when reread in differing lights. This is a novel that raises hard questions but provides no easy answers.

Elizabeth Robelen is a member of the Washington Independent Review of Books Editorial Board.

comments powered by Disqus