Richard F. Abrahamson & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: In doing the research for Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, what did you learn that surprised you the most?
Ellen Emerson White: I was particularly surprised to find out that the ship was on fire before it even left Southampton. Apparently it was burning out of control in one of the boiler-rooms and was not put out until the third or fourth day of the voyage. The huge amount of coal that was burned made the ship list slightly to one side, and the intense heat may have weakened the metal supporting walls of that area to the degree that they were unable to withstand the water pressure from the crash later on. I was also surprised to find out that so many passengers brought their dogs along on the journey. At least two of the dogs even survived the disaster!
RFA & LMP: What distinguishes Margaret Ann Brady's version of the sinking of the Titanic from the abundance of recent books and movies on the subject?
EEW: Most of the other Titanic stories focus on the classes individually, which presents a very different perspective. By the same token, Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the movie would never have been permitted to wander about first class so casually and easily. Kate Winslet's character could have gone down to steerage without much trouble, but it just didn't happen the other way around. So, I thought it would be interesting to have a working-class character who had a legitimate reason to be in the first class areas — and yet, she still didn't quite fit in. The fact that Margaret is British and Mrs. Carstairs is American allowed for some cultural clashes above and beyond class issues.
RFA & LMP: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
EEW: I found the research about the East End of London the most interesting aspect of the story. For me, giving Margaret such a detailed background and spending time with her in the orphanage made the story richer.
RFA & LMP: There is a real class consciousness in this diary: Margaret is aware of her place as a companion, but it is even more evident in Mrs. Carstairs's behavior. Were Americans really so class-conscious during the early part of the century?
EEW: The first-class passengers on the Titanic were genuinely the true celebrities of the times — famous solely for being rich, as opposed to being lauded for any sort of personal achievements. They were the jet-setters and "beautiful people" of that period in history. Also, it's important to remember that this was the end of the Edwardian and Gilded Ages, during which money and social position were considered vitally important. There are some historians who believe that one reason so many third-class passengers died was because they didn't feel it was "their place" to take initiative and force their way upstairs. They were accustomed to waiting their turn, and often expected the worst to happen, and were not surprised when it did.
RFA & LMP: Is there one incident of heroism or courage that is seared in your memory as you think of that night?
EEW: No, there is not. I think what makes the Titanic story so compelling is that so many people demonstrated such incredible grace under pressure. I am sure there was a coward here and there, but the number of people who behaved poorly was improbably tiny. If the same disaster were to take place today, I doubt that so many people would respond that selflessly, although I hope that is misplaced cynicism on my part. I think there would be a much higher level of panic, and probably incidents of people being shoved aside or trampled.
RFA & LMP: If you could ask young readers of Margaret's diary one question, what would that question be?
EEW: What do you think would happen if the same disaster took place today? How would the story be different? What would be similar?
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady?
EEW: I hope readers will remember that, despite all the hype about the Titanic, in the end, the story is about the people who died so tragically and bravely. No book or movie can ever really do justice to their memories, but I think that reading about historical events is a very good way of honoring those who have come before us, and showing respect for them.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.