CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 15. . . .December 15, 2017
Victoria, BC: Orca, March, 2018.
181 pp., pbk., pdf & epub., $14.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1571-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1572-8 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1573-5 (epub).
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
...[E]ven though he didn't want to go and there was so much to live for, he'd tried to find a way to exist without despair knowing that he would die soon. He said he'd thought about it and ... found that nothing mattered except other people. Love for other people and their love for him. There wasn't anything else."
Deliver us from evil...Is what happens to us evil? Punishment for some transgression, some cruelty? The devil's work. Or is it all just bad luck, a terrible storm, an overloaded boat, bad judgment, bad timing? Surely it's self-centred, self-absorbed to consider ourselves touched by some specific, us-sized evil rather than simply victims of circumstance?
Big Water is based on an historical event, the sinking of the steamship Asia on Georgian Bay in 1882. The only survivors were two teenagers, and Curtis has imagined their story for her novel. She explains that she "tried to remain true to the period and basic outline of the ship's last voyage" but that Christina McBurney and Daniel Thompson, the central characters, have been fictionalized, with changed names, invented backstories and imagined emotions.
Curtis, who writes about food and nutrition, is also something of a specialist in Great Lakes nautical history. Her earlier book, Into the Blue, was the story of her great grandfather, a steamboat captain who disappeared in Georgian Bay. In her Authors' Note, readers learn that the sinking of the Asia made front page headlines. Poems and songs were written about the disaster; two independent investigations were held into the tragedy; and firsthand accounts from the two survivors were published.
In Big Water, 17-year-old Christina is running away from Owen Sound to Sault Ste Marie, a place she visited several years earlier with her parents and twin brother Jonathan. Jonathan had died recently after a long battle with consumption, and his family is devastated. Christina believes that her parents want to be rid of her because the very sight of her face reminds them of their lost son. She's afraid they will send her away to be a nursemaid or rural schoolteacher.
Curtis' choice of the present tense brings immediacy, allowing readers to feel that they are going through the ordeal hand in hand with Christina. Presenting the story through Christina's stream-of-consciousness brings the story "up close and personal" and allows readers to share Christina's thoughts, fears and memories as they occur to her. The author prepares readers for Christina's mental shifts back and forth from her immediate predicament to her memories by having her mention her state of agitation. Since Jonathan's death, she has been reacting inappropriately, including, for instance, laughing when there's no reason to do so. Her flight to Sault Ste Marie, with no notion of how she will live there, shows her traumatized state before the disaster.
When authors choose the present tense, however, they must decide whether or not the resulting story sounds logical and authentic. Diaries are in the present tense and have that "up close and personal" quality, but, for obvious reasons, the diary form is not an option in the case of Christina's ordeal. Yet her moment-to-moment account of developments and her deep philosophical reflections (see beginning quote) give one pause. If she's talking to herself, then she's doing so more coherently than many of us would in such circumstances. It's almost as if she's constantly in communication with someone on a cell phone. The past tense would have been more realistic, if less immediate, and the plot is certainly dramatic and terrifying enough to make readers identify with her and Daniel (her co-survivor) and stay glued to the pages.
The author has created an interesting backstory for Daniel. Early on, Christina overhears him arguing with his uncle who calls him ungrateful. When Daniel threatens to tell the authorities about something that's going on, his uncle says, "You think your hands are clean?" Intrigued that the two survivors gave first hand accounts, I did an internet search to find out more about them. (See https://greyroots.com/story/sinking-steamer-asia and http://www.gendisasters.com/ontario/15522/georgian-bay-on-steamer-asia-disaster-sep-1882).
Christina Ann Morrison, on whom Christina McBurney is based, was actually travelling to visit her sister, and she took the Asia because she'd missed an earlier steamer. Duncan Tinkiss or Tinkus of Manitoulin Island, on whom Daniel is based, was aboard with his uncle and ended up in the same lifeboat as Christy Ann, as she was called. The two survived 18 hours on the open water and two days lost on shore, as Curtis describes.
In this novel, the co-protagonists emerge from their harrowing experience feeling strong, glad to be alive, and ready to face the future. Did the two survivors live long and prosper? While I found no details about Duncan Tinkiss's life after the ordeal, I learned that Christina Ann Morrison (Mrs. Albert Fleming), who had called her experience "a nightmare", died near Owen Sound at age 74. Very likely she would be honoured to appear 135 years after the tragedy as a character in Big Water.
Ruth Latta's young adult historical novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, is available from email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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University of Manitoba
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