CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005
So reads an article in a newspaper left behind in a San Francisco diner where 16-year-old Anne McLaughlin-Scott is having breakfast with Michael Smith, a former neighbour. Their meeting in San Francisco is purely chance. With her parents on vacation, Anne is supposed to connect with her grandmother, the headmistress of a private girls' school in Victoria, BC. But Nana's arrival in the Bay City is delayed, and Anne is alone in the city and on her way to see a science fair display when she sees a familiar-looking young man affixing an anti-war poster to a lamp post (it's 1970, and the Vietnam War is still going strong). Five years her senior and a journalism student at Berkley, Michael is heading to Canada to evade the draft and continue his protest work. He's appealing, in the way that rebellious university guys can be to willful high school girls, and she agrees to meet with him again after his participation in an anti-war demonstration.
Michael wastes no time in using Anne's good will to his advantage: in order for him to evade the police, he convinces her to let him stay in her room in the seedy hotel-room she has rented. She does, and after attending the science fair, she watches a ship head towards Pier 35. Curious as to whether it's the SS Ocean Spirit, she goes to the pier, and watches as the ship berths and passengers embark. She wishes that she "could sail away on the SS Ocean Spirit to Vancouver! That was impossible, but at least [she] could hang around and maybe get some information for Michael about the flu on-board" (18). He's interested in the ship, too. His journalistic instincts tell him that there's more to the story than what the news article has said, and, if he can follow up on it, perhaps there's some cash in it for him.
Amazingly, just as Anne's about to leave, Cece Rathbone, the liner's shipping agent, asks her if she is looking for work, and he hires her, virtually on the spot. And so, Anne becomes a runaway at sea, with hopes that she and Michael will meet four days later in Vancouver where she can stay with her Aunt Ruth, the family's "black sheep" and designated free spirit. However, Anne quickly finds out that life as a crew member on a cruise ship is hardly the adventure that she expects. While the ship looks like a "graceful, romantic, and beautiful" floating hotel, crew members live in cramped quarters, and dining conditions are less than elegant. Very quickly, Anne is assigned to assist the head nurse in the ship's infirmary. With both crew and guests ill with severe gastro-intestinal illness, the infirmary is a busy place, and the rumor is that they are suffering from typhoid.
The rumor is quickly confirmed, and, although the ship does reach Vancouver, Anne's plan to leave and escape to her aunt's home is foiled by the arrival of Dr. Kenneth Chown, the quarantine officer. As luck would have it, Chown attended McGill with Anne's father, and Chown quickly decides that Anne can assist him in his investigation of the ship-board epidemic. Her job in the infirmary makes her an ideal candidate for the task of being Chown's eyes and ears - illnesses like typhoid are devastating for cruise ships, and amongst the crew, a conspiracy of silence and non-compliance makes Dr. Chown's work challenging, and Anne's life difficult. Her co-workers see her a little more than a traitor. But, she's amazingly courageous for a 16-year-old, and despite sexual harassment from Cece, cold anger from her room-mate, Tracy, and a grinding work schedule overseen by Sister B., the martinet who oversees the infirmary, Anne helps Dr. Chown solve the mystery of how the ship's water supply came to be contaminated.
As well, by the end of 150 pages, she finds shipboard romance, realizes that Michael is an opportunistic jerk, and, as a result of her very hands-on experience in combating a highly infectious disease, has the ideal science project, when she decides that she'll stay with her aunt and enroll in a public high school, rather than the tony girls' school of which her grandmother is a headmistress.
Runaway at Sea is a real page-turner (and, the graphic descriptions of the sufferings of those afflicted by typhoid are a real stomach-turner). I had to keep reminding myself that Anne is only 16 - she seemed altogether too mature, at times, given the circumstances with which she was coping - and there were altogether too many lucky breaks for this plucky heroine. Nevertheless, Razzell has written a compelling, fast-moving novel with great appeal for young female readers. There's some tough language, sexual innuendo, and truly graphic descriptions of bedpans and more, but nothing that's really worse than your average episode of CSI, Law and Order, and its like. Oh yes, one more warning - I'm glad that I read this after I returned from a cruise holiday! Bottled water is good!!!!
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.