September 27, 2018


Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Loved to Tell About It. By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou. Da Capo. $27.

     The horrors of the sinking of the Titanic after collision with an iceberg in 1912 are well-known, as are the maritime-safety reforms developed after the tragedy and the remarkable fact that since then, the number of deaths under similar circumstances is exactly zero. But if the famed five-star liner and its many wealthy and distinguished passengers marked the end of death-by-iceberg during crossings of the North Atlantic, what about earlier sinkings and deaths? Discussions of the Titanic rarely, if ever, go there, but that is exactly where Brian Murphy and his wife, Toula Vlahou, go in Adrift. It is an extremely well-researched account of the voyage of the John Rutledge, which was sunk by an iceberg on February 20, 1856 – leaving a single survivor, seaman Thomas W. Nye, who was interviewed about his more-than-harrowing experience in 1903, two years before his death.

     Nye’s narrative is the core of Adrift, and it is the stuff of horror beyond anything authors and filmmakers have conjured up in dramas and movies about the Titanic and other famous disasters (Hindenburg, Lusitania, etc.). Passengers did get to lifeboats after Nye’s ship hit an iceberg, but all those boats, except the one carrying Nye and 12 others – each of them “about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter” – were swept away as the John Rutledge went down and were never seen again. For nine days, having food for only one day aboard, the few pitiful survivors froze in gale-force winter winds and frigid swells, became desperate for water, in some cases even drank sea water (which poisoned them, driving some to delirium before they perished), and eventually succumbed to the incredibly harsh conditions – all except Nye, who was eventually picked up by a ship called the Germania.

     The story sounds thrilling, if terrifying, and as a short story (or newspaper article: Murphy works for The Washington Post), it would be. But there is not nearly enough in Nye’s 1903 interview (with a journalist of that time) to carry an entire book. Therefore, Murphy and Vlahou make the survival story the middle of Adrift, using the first part of the book to set the scene and discuss the middle of the 19th century in general and its shipping in particular, and using the last part of the book for the usual “what happened to them later” look at people and events in the years after the John Rutledge went down.

     Unfortunately, the meticulous detail and the book’s very meandering style vitiate the power of its central story, turning Adrift into an extended history lesson (replete with footnotes), a discussion of the out-migration of people from starving countries at the time (the John Rutledge carried some 100 Irish passengers in steerage), a listing and analysis of ships of the era and their ownership, biographies of sea captains and their families, and so on. This larger background leads to a choppy, frequently confusing presentation in which the material that is not germane to the central narrative takes over and more or less becomes the book’s reason for being. Students of the 19th century, of shipping in general, of disasters at sea in any form, and of unusual weather conditions (the winter of 1856 was exceptionally cold and the sea unusually ice-packed), will find the many tangents fascinating. Most readers, though, will likely deem them distractions – although, given the relative paucity of central material with which Murphy and Vlahou could work (including the ship’s log and some newspaper coverage as well as the interview with Nye), it is hard to see how they could have focused the story more effectively on its most-intriguing elements.

     Obviously, this disaster took place before there was a way for lifeboats to communicate with each other; before they could signal their locations to anyone; before there was any practical way to make a small boat stand out in the vastness of the sea – all of which makes the fact that Nye was rescued something of a miracle. But Adrift makes Nye’s tale far from miraculous: Murphy and Vlahou, in placing it squarely in context and surrounding it with so much else, render it mundane. Perhaps, objectively speaking, it was mundane for its age – that, it can be argued, is why safety-focused reforms occurred only many years later, when more people of wealth and prominence were directly affected. Yet if the sinking of a small ship by ice in the North Atlantic was nothing remarkable in the middle of the 19th century, the survival of anyone aboard such a ship was remarkable: the John Rutledge was scarcely the only ship to disappear beneath the waves in the winter of 1856. Accordingly, the Nye-focused parts of Adrift are frightening, horrendous, thrilling and heartbreaking, while the rest of the book, the part that sets the context and goes into tremendous detail about irrelevant matters (such as the family history of the woman who bandaged Nye’s legs after his rescue), is far too unfocused and discursive to hold much interest for most readers. Adrift is impressive for its research but much less so for its storytelling.

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