Disasters at Sea aDisasters at Sea:
A Visual History of Infamous Shipwrecks
by Liz Mechem

This was a “browser” book, the sort I could pick up when I only had 15 minutes of time to fill, when interruptions were to be expected. Each article — and they were very much more like brief magazine articles than like regular book chapters — was only two to four pages long, just the right length to fill in a bit of time with something interesting enough to engage my attention but not requiring too much mental effort to get into focus.

There were about five dozen stories here, arranged in groups of similar theme, such as Collisions, Storms, Fires, Design Flaws, War, and Piracy. Some stories, such as the Titanic and the Andrea Doria, were so overly-familiar that I skipped over them.

Others were stories I’d read about in the past, but not so often that they had grown dull. Some, I’d forgotten about until I saw them again here. I revisited with interest the tales of the Eastland, the Essex, the General Slocum, the Endurance, the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Empress of Ireland, and Halifax disaster (the Mont Blanc/Imo ), finding my memories jogged as I read, and recollections returning afresh.

And then there were the stories I don’t think I’d ever heard before at all. Here was the fascinating saga of the clipper General Grant, wrecked off the Auckland Islands in 1866 — a tale of castaways struggling to survive a brutal winter, of a fire started with their single surviving match and kept burning for 18 months, of clothes made from the skins of the seals they hunted.

Here too was the tale of the Princess Sophia, stuck on a reef in Alaska’s Inner Passage in 1918 — waiting out a blinding snowstorm for 40 hours while rescue ships nearby waited for the weather to calm enough to remove her passengers safely, only to end in a sudden deadly boiler explosion which killed everyone aboard, so frustratingly near to safety.

“A visual history”, as the subtitle of the book says, means that these brief articles are profusely illustrated with pictures and maps, adding to the magazine-style feel of the book and making for easy browsing. Sometimes, when I need a book for distraction and haven’t the sort of day with much reading time in it, this is just the kind of book that comes to hand and satisfies.

And who knows — these little tidbits of stories may very well turn out to be the sample appetizers which lure me into a larger meal. I don’t despise tidbit-sized books, because that’s often where I pick up the trail to my next good read. I’m thinking now that I’d like to see whether the library has any book about the General Grant. And I’m also thinking I might like to revisit the Halifax disaster in more detail.

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