Titanic #1: Unsinkable

Titanic #1: Unsinkable by Gordon Korman

Unsinkable begins on the deck of the RMS Carpathia, where the few survivors of the Titanic watch the sea where the great ship once sailed.  Beginning in this manner allows Korman to inform readers that the Titanic has, in fact, sunk.  While this is common knowledge for most adults, it’s a smart way to let young readers know the fate of the ship from the outset.

The chapters alternate between characters.  This allows readers to learn about the different kinds of people who sailed on the Titanic.  It’s also a little confusing at first.  Forty-five pages in, you’re still meeting new people whose story you will now follow.  There are two female main characters and two male main characters, I suppose for equity, but the story seems to end up focusing on a poor thief named Paddy who stows away on the ship.  The others are all caught up in his drama as they learn he isn’t supposed to be on the ship and that he is also in imminent danger from a gangster on board.

This is the first book in a trilogy and does not even attempt to wrap up at the end.  It just sort of stops and waits for the reader to go get the next book.  Which is fine.  As one book, it would have seemed overly long and insurmountable to many readers, but broken up it is more accessible to readers.

While I’m generally a fan of historical fiction, especially historical fiction that can draw in modern readers, I wasn’t thrilled with the way this book did it.  The story of the Titanic can be fraught with danger and most certainly ends in tragedy.  It’s a story that will grab you and draw you in, if written properly.  But Korman doesn’t rely on the natural interest of the event.  Instead he manufactures two secondary plot lines both of which focus on violence. In one, Paddy, the thief, has accidentally robbed the brother of a major gangster.  A man who won’t accept the stolen goods as retribution, and will only rest when Paddy has been beaten bloody.  In another, Paddy and Alfie (a steward on the ship) discover a scrapbook of violent crimes along with some gruesome artifacts, leading Alfie to believe that Jack the Ripper (the notorious murderer) is on board.

The vocabulary is much harder than I expected given the length and interest level of the book, meaning it would take a strong third grade reader or older child to tackle it.  It’s also going to require a reader who won’t be upset by the numerous sad/violent/tragic aspects of the book.

Sex, Nudity, Dating – A 17 year old refuses comfort saying she’s just watched her husband drown. Thugs rip a towel off a man in the Turkish bath.
Profanity – “thank the Lord,” “Lord Almighty,” a man “began to curse,” “damned,”
Death, Violence and Gore –Well, it’s the Titanic.  1,502 people died, mostly by freezing to death, rather than drowning.  The process (how it would feel) of freezing to death is described.  A boy takes a punch to the jaw, he punches his assailant in the stomach.  A boy was beaten by his stepfather.  A woman is hit on the head by a constable.  Blood runs down her face.  A boy is threatened by a man who puts on brass knuckles.  A boy is beaten with a shillelagh (a cudgel).  His friend is also injured or possibly killed.  There is blood in the area where they are attacked.  A boy finds a scrapbook filled with articles about murders. One has a  headline about a ghastly murder.  It tells of how a woman was stabbed.  Another tells about a crime committed by Jack the Ripper.  With it the boy finds a jar of souvenirs, including human teeth.  He suspects the murderer is aboard ship.  A boy finds a gun in the luggage. A boy is hit repeatedly in the face.  He bites his attacker.  Someone is trying to throw him overboard.  A man is threatened with hanging.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A boy’s stepfather used to beat him after drinking whiskey.  A girl comments that her mother is probably in the smoking lounge, smoking a cigar.  One girl’s father is a drunkard.
Frightening or Intense Things – A boy’s mother abandoned him.

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