On her first voyage as a stewardess aboard the Empress of Ireland, Ellie is drawn to the solitary fire-stoker who stands by the ship’s rail late at night, often writing in a journal. Jim. Ellie finds it hard to think of his name now. After their wonderful time in Quebec City, that awful night happened. The screams, the bodies, the frigid waters… She tries hard to tell herself that he survived, but it’s hard to believe when so many didn’t.
So when Wyatt Steele, journalist at The New York Times, asks her for her story, Ellie refuses. But when he shows her Jim’s journal, she jumps at the chance to be able to read it herself, to find some trace of the man she had fallen in love with or perhaps a clue to what happened to him. There’s only one catch: she will have to tell her story to Steele and he’ll “pay” her by giving her the journal, one page at a time.
After reading Caroline Pignat’s historical young adult novel Unspeakable, I really feel like my high school history class let me down. Why had I never heard about this passenger ship, the Empress of Ireland, that sank near Rimouski, Quebec in fourteen minutes in 1914? Unspeakable is a fascinating read, not only because of the story of the characters, but because it brings to light a harrowing tale from Canadian history with insight and emotion.
Caroline Pignat’s writing is just beautiful, masterfully incorporating water/ship imagery into the narrative. I quickly became invested in Ellie’s story, wanting to see her find some happiness when life had been so unkind. It is somewhat predictable but I found that worked to this story’s advantage, playing with my emotions and making me want to shake Ellie for jumping to conclusions.
The sinking of the Empress stayed with me long after reading. Yes, it reminded me a lot of the movie Titanic, but reading about the Empress’s sinking through a crewmember was an altogether different and absorbing experience.
Unspeakable is a beautiful and haunting story of hope and survival and I am so glad I read it. I recommend it to all teachers looking to add a dose of great Canadian writing to their lesson plans, and to anyone looking for an intriguing historical YA read.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ (4/5 hearts)
Also be sure to check out Caroline Pignat’s guest post about finding the right voice for her characters here.