For the passengers on The Empress of Ireland, one of the prestigious passenger liners belonging to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the ominous blasts of the ship’s whistle changed their lives forever. On May 29, 1914, the large passenger ship collided with the smaller Norwegian collier, Storstad, in the St. Lawrence River.
For over 30 years, author Nicholas Kinsey, a Canadian/British writer and director, found himself curiously drawn back to that event, hoping to one day create a television drama series based on this tragedy. His historical research was extensive. Over 2,000 pages of testimony were examined. Although based on established facts, it is the writer’s privilege to invent material that breathes life into a novel. The author thus states that this remains a work of historical fiction.
From the very first lines, Kinsey skillfully crafts this novel. We are drawn into the lives of the individuals on the Empress, passengers confused and frightened when loud blasts of the ship’s whistle sound and the ship begins to list, then rapidly sink. He weaves the story between the disaster itself and what follows with the survivors in a courtroom as lawyers and witnesses try to unravel the cause of the collision.
In just 14 minutes, the passenger ship sank on that foggy night, taking with it 1,012 passengers. Families were separated. Passengers in second and third class had very little hope of being rescued. Some of the survivors thrown into the river tried desperately to navigate the turbulent waters. Others fought for a place on the few overcrowded lifeboats. Less fortunate passengers were sucked under the ship, lost forever. Survivors were taken to a basement room at a nearby pier. Boats brought in cadavers with faces swollen, disfigured, and bruised from the wreck, and survivors and their families rushed forward, hoping to identify their loved ones. The reader feels the panic and hysteria as loved ones cry out, searching for spouses and children.
Capt. Kendall of the Empress survived and made it known that he had the right to see the bodies being hauled out of the water. He listened to the blame being hurled at him and felt ashamed. He had failed at his job.
The detailed inquest that follows is in itself a captivating story. Those representing the Empress and the CPR had a reputation to uphold. It was natural to blame Norway, a small country with little influence on the Atlantic crossings of great ships. The Norwegians blamed the Empress, but did not have the powerful backing of CPR. Anger, harsh words, and lies pour forth in the court of law before Lord Mersey, an opinionated British jurist who had led the investigation into the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. He seems to flounder when asking questions, giving the impression that sea-going vessels are something he knows little about. In addition, those wishing to benefit from insurance are quick to make false claims, even though they were in no way part of the disaster.
There are many personalities in this well-crafted novel. One chapter will take you into the life of a survivor who tries to find a way back to normal. The next chapter may find you in the courtroom where questions are repeated over and over, trying to find the truth of what really happened. Reputations are at stake and sometimes influence both the questions asked and the answers given. In the unraveling of this historic event, relationships are both built and broken.
Kinsey has written a historical novel that is impossible to put down. I found that the transitions from survivor story to courtroom events held my interest from start to finish. What is the conclusion? Who is guilty? How will Capt. Kendall of The Empress of Ireland and Capt. Andersen of the Storstad move forward in their lives? That is for you, the reader, to discover.
This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.