Reviewed by Rima Walker
Conflict is the crux of almost every work of writing as it frequently is in life: man against man, against God or gods; against himself, or against nature. This last one has yielded many survival stories, true and fictional, of people in plane and car crashes, the survivors ending up in major snow and ice environments, jungles, mountains, deserts and other bleak and dangerous settings; but perhaps the most intriguing is when men face nature in the form of a shipwreck and must find a way to survive until rescue arrives or they rescue themselves. The major theme of this novel, set in 1914, is what actions are right or wrong in a situation where people face life or death from an indifferent and sometimes cruel nature.
When you hear the word “shipwreck” you might think immediately of the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic, made famous in fiction, nonfiction, and films, or the memorable film “Castaway.” The Bounty trilogy is equally famous, especially because Nordhoff and Hall wrote these novels based on the facts of the mutiny and its aftermath. Captain Bligh’s fate, set adrift in a boat with men who did not mutiny but stayed with him, is remarkable. As testament to the popularity of this particular theme are all the books that have been written about shipwrecks and rescues from The Odyssey down to our time—the most recent being a first novel by Charlotte Rogan.
The Lifeboat offers us a different view of survival in an open boat filled with 30 women and 9 men. The main character is a recently married woman, Grace Winter, wedded only a few months and probably now widowed because she doesn’t know if her very wealthy husband, whom she schemed to marry for the good life she craved, made it into a lifeboat. In the very beginning of the book we learn that Grace is in jail and about to be tried for some reason not revealed to us at this point except that the threat of a death penalty may be the outcome.
Obviously something really horrible happened on board the boat for her to be tried and possibly found guilty. Many survival book readers might immediately think of cannibalism since that has frequently happened after a disaster when the food runs out. Think of the Donner Pass. But let me assure you that cannibalism does not happen in this novel, although what does happen is equally horrible. What the novel is about has to do with these happenings. The questions raised have everything to do with human nature: Are these terrible but totally necessary actions ethical and moral? From a religious point of view would they be considered mortal sins, and from a legal and moral point of view are these actions right or wrong? On the boat which Grace comes to think of as their “floating world”, some people may have to be sacrificed or volunteer to throw themselves overboard because the boat is so overcrowded that there is danger of everyone dying if the boat capsizes. How long can they go without food and water? So once again and throughout the novel discussions take place about sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary. And here is where the greatest conflict comes about.
The acting “captain” of the lifeboat is a very experienced sailor named John Hardie who gives the orders that hopefully will save their lives. He measures out the food and drink that they already have and provides some sustenance by killing fish with his knife when the food and water run out. Infrequent rain gives them some water, but as the days go by they become more and more dehydrated and begin to starve to death. Strongly in favor of Hardie, Grace, an expedient woman, comes to recognize the chances of their survival if rescue doesn’t arrive and realizes that there must be some sacrifice: “We could not save everybody and save ourselves.” Hardie’s rival is Mrs. Ursula Grant, allied with a woman named Hannah, who wants to wrest control from Hardie and finds a way to do so by turning the people on the boat against him, including Grace. Grant accomplishes this partly by bringing Grace to her side. Their actions land all three women in prison to face trial for their lives.
While we learn little about Mrs. Grant and Hannah and the others on board in general, we learn a great deal about strong-willed Grace (an interesting name considering her behavior) who knows on which side her bread is buttered, even in the midst of starvation. She actually tries to convince one weak young woman to jump overboard. She comes to see that everyone was down to the “bare bones” of their natures, “stripped of all decency,” with nothing “good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away.” Every decision she makes about life is based on her idea that she must do what is necessary to be safe and to have what she wants. All around her people are dying voluntarily or from starvation and dehydration, but she has a strong will to live and does survive, only to face a trial, the outcome of which will surprise you in more ways than one. The book ends on an unexpected note, but one that is consonant with how Grace lives her life.
To build the suspense, Rogan uses the stylistic device of having Grace face a jury for reasons not revealed at the book’s beginning, followed by alternating chapters in which she is the narrator who may or may not be reliable concerning the trials of the people on the boat and the trial she, Mrs. Grant, and Hannah must go through. ~