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'The Lifeboat': Who Gets Saved In Titanic Times?


Now, a piece of fiction inspired by the Titanic's fateful voyage. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the famous shipwreck, a cluster of books have been released looking back on the voyage. But the book that caught the eye of NPR's Lynn Neary is invented. It's the story of a fictional shipwreck that occurred two years after the Titanic. It's called "Lifeboat." Here's her report.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When writer Charlotte Rogan was growing up, here family had a sailboat. Her father liked to compete in races, and he took those competitions very seriously. Charlotte remembers that as a young child she and her sister were too small to help. They were expected to make themselves scarce and not fall overboard.

CHARLOTTE ROGAN: And I have such vivid memories of sitting with her in a dripping puddle with the wind rising, the gale coming. We were supposed to stay out of the way, but how that was done as the weather deteriorated was really unclear. So I kind of could empathize with Grace battling the elements and being surrounded by people who were stronger than she was.

NEARY: Grace is Grace Winter, the narrator of Rogan's new novel "Lifeboat." A newly married young woman, Grace and her husband are first-class passengers on a transatlantic voyage when an explosion threatens everyone on board. What happens after that says Rogan is very different from what happened to the survivors of the Titanic.

ROGAN: The tragedy of the Titanic was that there were not enough lifeboats. But if you made it into a lifeboat, you were rescued four to six hours later. These people are not rescued. They're the same sort of people; they're traveling from England to America on a luxury steamship that sinks. So in a way you could say my story takes up where the Titanic left off.

NEARY: Rogan says she got the idea for the novel when she picked up some of her husband's criminal law books one day and began reading some of the cases.

ROGAN: And I was completely captivated by two cases about shipwrecked sailors who were later put on trial after being rescued. And that sort of moral dilemma of people who find themselves beyond the reach of any legal authority, beyond the reach of any kind of hope of rescue, is their only course of action. It's their only moral course of action to quietly die if it becomes a question of killing some to save others.

NEARY: As the story begins, Grace is on trial for something that happened aboard the lifeboat, though it's not clear what crime she may have committed. Her attorney asks her to write down what happened on board the small overcrowded vessel.

Early on, one of the ship's sailors, Mr. Hardie, takes control, determined to do whatever is necessary to protect those already on board. At one point, two men grab onto the boat, expecting to be rescued.

ROGAN: (Reading) On Hardie's orders, the oarsman sitting nearest him beat one set of hands away before beginning on the hands of the blue-eyed man. I heard the crack of wood against bone, then Hardie raised his heavy boots and shoved it into the man's face eliciting a cry of anguished surprise. It was impossible to look away and never have I had more feeling for a human being than I had for that unnamed man.

NEARY: Most of the passengers soon divide into factions: those who trust Hardie's brutal but effective leadership and those, mostly the women, who are comforted by the matronly and morally upright Mrs. Grant. Grace never quite commits to either. Though Rogan never describes what she looks like, it becomes obvious that Grace is very beautiful and often tries to use that to her advantage as the situation grows more desperate.

ROGAN: She definitely is manipulative and, and charming. I think that she kind of watches and waits and sees her opportunity. She's also, I'm not sure if spoiled is the right word, but she's, you know, a bit entitled. But there are things about her that I admire. I don't judge her and I think part of thing that allows me to do that is the way that I got to know her, which was sort of the way the reader gets to know her, she sort of revealed herself to me over time.

NEARY: Although it is Grace who tells the story of what happened on the lifeboat, her own role in the events is murky and she remains something of an enigma right until the end. Rogan says she deliberately left some things to the reader's imagination.

ROGAN: It's such a fine line of how much to reveal and how much to hold back and, you know, you risk frustrating your readers if you don't tell enough, but I think you also risk alienating them if you have the last few chapters devoted to tying everything up in a neat package. So my bias is don't explain everything. I'm sure that's, you know, you know, there will probably be readers who say, oh, I wish she had said more.

NEARY: But one thing is crystal clear about Grace: she is a survivor. And Rogan is crafty as she portrays that instinct to do what it takes to make it off the boat alive.

ROGAN: Well, I do think that people have a very, very strong survival instinct. You know, we wouldn't be here having populated the earth the way we've done if we didn't. So I think it is very, very hard to know who of us is so altruistic that we would give up our lives for a stranger. I think that person is quite rare.

NEARY: It is easy, says Charlotte Rogan, to sit back in a warm, safe room, sure of what you would do it a desperate situation. But those moral certitudes may become unhinged in a leaky lifeboat adrift at sea.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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