People kid me here at the Northshire about my — shall we say — fixation on the Titanic. I’m making a conscious effort not to bring it up in conversations. (You might be surprised at how many connections can be drawn between the ship and any number of current events.) A blog is different and no one has to read it if they don’t want to. So there.
We had a Titanic event recently at the store in which I got to share the stage with Katherine Howe, whose intriguing and atmospheric new novel, The House of Velvet and Glass, incorporates the sinking of the liner in 1912 into its narrative.
Our store event took place on the 100th anniversary of the disaster and Ms. Howe graciously devoted most of her time — and her considerable expertise on the subject — to the great White Star ship. Her book is a minutely detailed exploration of societal manners, morals, and decor at the turn of the century and it contains a neat twist that I kept reminding myself not to refer to. But that afternoon belonged to the Titanic.
The House of Velvet and Glass is about the impact of the tragedy on the well-to-do Allston family of Boston. The Allstons are a splintered lot as is the case with many rich folks and the Titanic is a catalyst that uncovers some dark and closely-guarded secrets.
I am wary, I confess, of authors who exploit the ship to advance a plot without doing much homework — call it the Clive Cussler factor. Helen Allston and her daughter, Eulah, were traveling in first-class (and mingling with the Wideners, no less). The fact that the women were in first-class set off an alarm bell, however. I thought that discreetly and tactfully bringing up the innocent point would instantly reveal to me the depth of Katherine’s knowledge about the entire subject. Only four women passengers in first-class died. The odds, it seemed to me, were distinctly favorable to the Allston ladies surviving the night.
“So,” said I in my best butter-wouldn’t-melt voice, “the two women were traveling in first-class?”
“I thought about that. Only four women from first-class died, you know,” she said.
Okay. She not only knew that most first-class women survived, she knew that only four died. Now the terrifying possibility that this much younger person knew more about the Titanic than I did loomed like the proverbial iceberg. What other loaded question could I ask? She would certainly know the number of lifeboats. Maybe how Madeleine Astor spelled her first name. A lot of authors leave out the second “e.” It would be tricky business, however, to weave the question into a casual conversation without the real intent seeming obvious. By the end of the event, I was sure she would know anyway and I simply told her how impressed I was with her knowledge of the Titanic epic. What is it they say about honesty?
I’m afraid that I gave Mary Allen, our lovely events coordinator here at the store a difficult time as far as how I would be referred to in the advertising for the Titanic event. (Not as much trouble, however, as I gave Debbi Wraga, our effervescent and equally-lovely print-on-demand wizard, over the cover of a book she was printing on the Titanic.) Mary thought the word enthusiast implied a certain joyfulness that was inappropriate for a tragedy that claimed over 1,500 lives. I suppose she was right, but it was still an adjective I wouldn’t totally discard as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t like the word “expert” because it always prompts someone to ask a question the answer to which I have absolutely no idea.
I was talking to the Rotary Club in Bennington once. I think that’s where my dread of questions originated. I finished my talk — I was sure it had gone over like the first reports from the North Atlantic — and asked if anyone had any questions or comments.
A man asked if the Panama Canal had been built to accommodate liners as large as the Titanic. It caught me totally off-guard. I hoped the hate rays weren’t too obvious in the dimly lit room.
I’m not a big believer in guardian angels, but one was with me that day.
Someone else piped up before I could stammer a word, “That’s the dumbest question I ever heard in my life!” I nodded in complete agreement and went quickly on to the next question.
Sometimes you do miss the iceberg.
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