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Review and close reading excerpts – Titanic: Voices From the Disaster

Titanic voices from disaster

“Don’t you know what happens in the end?” My husband could not understand why I wanted to leave the dinner table early to finish this book.   Yes, of course, I know the ending, but Hopkinson’s writing had me in its grip – one of the reasons this book was awarded a Sibert Honor Award for Nonfiction 2012. I hesitated in reading this book because I thought it would be primarily biographical and narrative in nature. Turns out – this is very much a blended text with a great deal of non-narrative information towards the beginning of the book describing the physical features of the Titanic with all of its amenities. Hopkinson introduces people who worked on the ship and those who were passengers – only through what the people wrote in letters or said at some point after the tragedy – if they survived. So the text has the feel of a documentary. She doesn’t take license and assume what they must have been feeling or saying (like Bill O’Reilly does in Lincoln’s Last Days – ugh). The lives of the passengers and the crew are threaded together and then surfaced throughout the text – from the weeks of preparation before the departure of the Titanic from it’s home in Belfast, Ireland to the arrival of the survivors in New York on the Carpathia. The survivors’ stories are pieced together to create suspense and then to dramatize the moments before and as the ship went down and then the hours spent waiting for rescue.

I’d recommend this for proficient readers – grades 5-8. I also think this could be read aloud to students. Putting all of the primary source images in the book on the document camera would add to the engagement. Or you could read excerpts with a “book talk” to interest independent readers.

There are challenges that I’d keep in mind if you recommend to students –

  • Hopkinson jumps right into describing and chronicling the Titanic as though the reader knows a bit about the Titanic already. There’s a short mention of “the largest and most luxurious ship the world had ever seen, a masterpiece of human engineering, class, and comfort” on the first page of Chapter One and then goes on as if you know what she’s talking about – for me there wasn’t an explicit enough introduction to this ship. That does not deter me from recommending. Just saying she’s assuming you already know a bit about the Titanic!
  • She refers to “decks” – D, E, F, etc. a lot throughout the book when discussing where events occurred (starting on page 36). While there’s a two page illustration of the ship with a side view and labels for different areas on the ship like the Crew Quarters – there is no graphic that helps the reader visualize “decks.” She has a glossary of terms – but not every term is there. She also uses “aft” and “astern” but these are not explained. Not a reason to avoid the book – but important to know if  you are recommending to students and want to be aware of possible obstacles.
  • There are a lot of people involved in Hopkinson’s narrative – students might struggle a bit to keep up with who, when, where, why – but I just kept reading and the people started to feel familiar and recognizable each time they popped up.

Excerpts for close reading –

As I read, I started to recognize some of Hopkinson’s themes and marked pages that revealed these themes – what struck me was the absolute arrogance and, as a result, blindness exhibited by the crew and passengers alike (first, second and third class passengers). They were all so taken with being on this amazing feat of engineering from the moment they stepped on the boat (or even before)…that they missed high flying, crazy waving, red flags when trouble arrived. Even after the ship sank, the survivors suffered from this arrogance because there was no “plan” for what to do now. What do you do when you’re stranded on a life boat in the icy Atlantic?

If you’re reading this aloud to students, you might highlight excerpts from the following pages that I think reveal the theme/development of the theme (Common Core Standard for Reading Informational Text 2). If students are reading independently – maybe share some with a student-reader as a model and ask him/her to locate others –

  • p. 24 – describes a second class passenger family’s intrigue with the Titanic
  • p. 27 – describes a well-traveled, first class passenger’s fascination
  • p. 59-60 – some messages from other ships were received and sent to head crew…and others weren’t…because they didn’t have the CQD label….
  • p. 62 – the captain of the Titanic shares that his 40 year career at sea has been “uneventful” and he seems to think there will be no problems (despite some early signs)
  • p. 77 – even after the ship hits, the passengers brush it off
  • p. 82-83 – passengers brush it off…but then….
  • p. 119 – filling lifeboats with people, but not organized and careless because…
  • p. 121 – more carelessness – the third class passengers (more would die from this class than others) were far, far away from lifeboats with no plan
  • p. 150-151 – a passenger and crew member remember the final sinking of the ship – grand even in how “she” sunk
  • p. 160-161 – “lonely” survivors and the realization that there was no plan
  • p. 188 – the Carpathia passengers and crew take care of the survivors
  • p. p. 217 – Hopkinson sums up… “The events of the Titanic disaster can be seen as a symbol of what happens through overconfidence in technology, complacence, and a mindset of profits over people’s safety” (wow…does this sound familiar given current events?)

Okay…hope this helps in thinking about “close reading” and in also just getting kids to read more nonfiction!

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