Adrift tells the story of the packet ship John Rutledge, which in 1856 crossed the North Atlantic from Liverpool to New York with a cargo consisting mostly of mail and around 100 passengers, many of them emigrating from Ireland. The ship navigated turbulent winter conditions before ultimately hitting an iceberg somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, and quickly sinking despite the crew’s best efforts. Four of its five lifeboats were lost in the foggy, frequently stormy weather after drifting apart from each other shortly after launching. The fate of the passengers of those four lifeboats remains unknown. All we know of the rest of the ship’s fate comes from the sole survivor of the fifth lifeboat’s thirteen passengers.
The book’s sources are primarily records stemming from and related to this survivor, Thomas Nye, including his personal journals and accounts given after the tragedy to newspapers, as well as from the ship’s logbook which he’d managed to save. An experienced sailor from the Bedford, Massachusetts whaling community, Nye may have been able to survive by resisting the common urge to drink seawater that occurs when suffering extreme thirst, which many others onboard the lifeboat fell victim to. Nye had been adrift in the icy, stormy waters for nine days before rescue came in the form of a passing ship. He wouldn’t have lasted long beyond the moment he was rescused.
I was interested because I was surprised how much I loved In the Heart of the Sea (super cheap paperback alert if you don’t mind the awful movie tie-in cover!). I’ve been open to shipwreck narratives, not my usual reading material go-to, since then. Adrift isn’t as comprehensive a narrative as that book, which also has that special combination of adventure, threatening event, background of the world at the time it occurred, and elements of science and psychology, but it makes a good effort and has some high points despite not having the kind of it-factor that made In the Heart of the Sea so magic.
Its strongest sections are those depicting the course of events as they played out on Nye’s lifeboat. They’re devastating too, as one by one the twelve passengers aside from Nye succumb to the elements, starvation, dehydration, and the maddening, dangerous aftereffects of drinking seawater in desperation. One of the hardest parts of this is that an almost-rabid type of insanity settled in in several of the cases, leading the sufferers to lash out against their loved ones and others in the boat. All this happened in addition to squabbles over the extremely limited water supply and a few dry biscuits that were their only provisions. Murphy and Vlahou are adept at vividly depicting this bleak, ever-worsening scenario.
I’ll never forget some of these stories, it’s one of the most horrible ends I could imagine. And to think this was no uncommon story either – we know what happened only because Nye survived to tell it. There were four more lifeboats from this ship alone, and the same tragedy transpired countless other times. The authors also have a strength for portraying the tensions that must have plagued the shipwreck’s survivors in their last days.
It also has some excellent contextual history, about the economics of ship ownership (readable and not as dry as it might sound) and the culture of emigration that led so many to brave the often-dangerous ocean crossings in search of a better life in America. And elsewhere some historical segues were less interesting and felt more like padding to stretch the narrative of the shipwreck and its aftermath, about which only so much material is available.
A bigger problem with the structure was imagined dialogue inserted throughout, particularly as the story covers the days on the lifeboat. Murphy takes care to clarify that he extensively researched the speech patterns and vocabulary as well as basing the content on what’s known of events from Nye’s stories but it didn’t sit right with me. It was extremely bland (out of necessity, obviously). I dislike this kind of fictionalization in what’s supposed to be nonfiction. The dialogue wasn’t inaccurate or unlikely by any means, in fact it was so generic that it couldn’t have been far off from the gist of what was said, but the generalization ended up being dull and distracting, on top of not necessarily being true.
So the wandering narrative doesn’t always hit the most fascinating topics and some reimagined dialogue is frustrating. Otherwise a harrowing narrative account of the harsh conditions and harsher ends met by the passengers of the sunken John Rutledge, and some interesting background of the logistics and economics of ocean travel in the 1800s, along with the quiet dignity of the tragedy’s only survivor. 2.5/5
A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic
and the One Who Lived to Tell About It
by Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou
published September 4, 2018 by Da Capo Press (Perseus)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.