The fictionalized saga of 14 Irish immigrants from a single parish who sailed on the Titanic.
The year is 1982. Maggie, 87, has never discussed the voyage with any of her descendants, including her great-granddaughter Grace, a journalism student at Chicago’s Northwestern University. Grace has been offered an internship at the Tribune—if she can pitch an original angle for a feature story. But when her father dies unexpectedly, she drops out of Northwestern to assist her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, also leaving her boyfriend, Jimmy. Two years later, Maggie jolts Grace back on the career path by deciding to finally come clean about her experience as one of the few third-class passengers who survived the Titanic. The historical sections cannot help but pull focus from the heartwarming frame story. A pastiche of journal entries, letters, telegrams and other archival material, some real, some convincingly faux, relates how 14 parishioners from the village of Ballysheen, County Mayo, decide to emigrate. Once aboard the revolutionary new ocean liner, Maggie and her giggly teenage girlfriends charm Harry, a Liverpudlian third-class steward, who devotes himself to making their passage pleasant. He helps Maggie send a “Marconigram” from the ship to Séamus, the love she left behind. Unfortunately, a certain iceberg intervenes. Her transmission is interrupted, altering its meaning. Harry manages to get Maggie on the last lifeboat; 12 of her fellow travelers are not so lucky. Gaynor wisely avoids the usual Titanic tropes (Astors and Strauses are scarcely mentioned), imagining the recollections of ordinary passengers and of the people anxiously awaiting news of them. Once Grace’s article goes the 1982 equivalent of viral, the parallel stories wrap up a bit too neatly, especially in the romance department.
Still, as the disaster’s 102nd anniversary approaches, Gaynor’s account surpasses, in subtlety if not in scope, so many flashier treatments.