While the April 1912 sinking of the Titanic has taken centre stage since the 1997 film (and was of course one of the most famous maritime disasters long before), it is salutary to realize that two years later, in the St. Lawrence River, a tragedy of almost equal magnitude occurred. In the wee hours of 29 May 1914, the Empress of Ireland collided with another boat and sank within 15 minutes. In Unspeakable, Caroline Pignat recreates “the greatest maritime disaster in the history of Canada,” through the story of Ellen Hardy, a young Irish girl sent to work as a servant on the trans-Atlantic vessel. Daughter of an Irish Lord, disgraced and rebellious, Ellen takes the name of Ellie Ryan and (under duress) begins to build a new life for herself, hoping that eventually she can find a place that is neither servitude aboard ship nor subjugation within her family.
We are catapulted into Ellie’s life on the morning of May 30th, as she stumbles through the survivors, searching for someone—anyone—she knows; the scene is one of unspeakable sorrow, mixed with the keening of joy and pain from those who find their loved ones, yet lament those still missing.
Ellie’s life unfolds for us in a series of vignettes: learning her new social position as the ship crossed the Atlantic; falling in love with another rebel, the stoker Jim Farrow; growing to appreciate the lives of others around her; sorrowing at the tragedy that took so many of those lives; struggling to makes sense of her new life back in Ireland, when everything she has known has changed. Pignat has created an elegantly complex narrative, moments in time woven together to construct an emotional, rather than temporal, arch. Ellie’s past becomes entwined with her present as she is reluctantly interviewed by an American journalist who holds a power over her: he has found Jim’s diary, her only possible connection to the man she loved and lost. The power games Wyatt Steele engages Ellie in reveal her character in a way that the narrative of her life on the Empress of Ireland does not. Her disdain for Steele, coupled with her need of what he has and knows, creates a fraught relationship that gives great pain, yet brings Ellie back to life. With no one left in her life, Ellie finds herself turning to Steele for companionship of a sort, and, with him, we learn more of Ellie’s history than just her time at sea.
One thing that shakes my faith in the author somewhat: the “Fascinating Facts” at the back of the book tell us that “more passengers died on the Empress of Ireland (840) than either the Titanic (832) or the Lusitania (791).” While we are told that the total number on the Empress of Ireland, including crew, was 1012, we are not told that the total number on the Titanic was actually 1517, and on the Lusitania 1959. These statistics make the sinking of the Empress of Ireland appear to be a more monumental but silenced disaster, the fates of the Irish immigrants overshadowed by the drama of the Titanic, sinking on her maiden voyage with so many rich and influential people on board, or of the Lusitania, torpedoes by a German U-boat in the First World War, becoming a rallying cry for British (and later American) military involvement. That the Lusitania and Titanic were peopled with the rich and politically significant, and the Empress of Ireland with Irish immigrants, should not—but did—infringe upon the latter story’s ability to resonate. 1012 people is still, after all, a major tragedy, a Canadian tragedy, and yet a story that few of us are told.