Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Lifeboat.
Rogan has written an intense little novel of survival inspired by the sinking of the ocean liner Empress Alexandra in 1914. The tense drama on Lifeboat 14 propels three survivors into court on charges of murder; Grace Winter, one of the survivors, narrates the tale. In the panic during the vessel’s sinking, hysterical crowds scurrying towards safety, thirty-nine people climb into a lifeboat where the world is reduced to a microcosm of society, a forced democracy of unlike souls in uncomfortable proximity.
Newlywed Grace Winter, twenty-two, is on her way to meet her new mother-in-law in New York with husband Henry. Grace’s concerns over war and her mother-in-law’s reaction pale in comparison to the unfolding tragedy, all those on the lifeboat in need of their wits for their unexpected encounter with the sea. Grace can’t remember much from those last frantic moments, only Henry handing her off to a crew member, promising to be with her again later. That very crew member, Hardie, is the only real sailor on the boat, the man everyone turns to for leadership in their distress.
As characters and events evolve, certain individuals rise above the rest, more vocal or dominant, either by virtue of sex and standing or by personality: a devoted deacon invoking song and prayer; a group of educated men accustomed to taking charge of others; the sturdy and outspoken Mrs. Grant and her staunch supporter, Hannah; Anya Robeson with her young son, Charles; Grace’s seatmate, Mary Ann, soon to be married; and the taciturn Mr. Hardie. Outfitted with supplies from the lifeboat and under the leadership of Mr. Hardie, hope fuels the passengers’ efforts in preparation for rescue.
One of their first challenges is the group’s decision whether to assist other survivors who have not been as fortunate, terrified men and women clinging to the side of Lifeboat 14 only to be disengaged by those inside who choose not to barter their chances for a stranger. Or the child floating nearby who is left to drift away—yet another mouth to eat their rations and drink their water. Such actions weigh heavily on the survivors, who have not had occasion to think of themselves in such a manner before, judging whether another shall live or die.
The benign beauty of the sea is more threatening up close and personal, the small craft at the whims of the weather and supplies, morale on a marked decline as the hours pass and other rescue boats drift farther away. Dwindling resources and frayed tempers exacerbate an already contentious situation. Organized civility disintegrates as smaller groups form to whisper complaints. The women gather around Mrs. Grant, who opposes Hardie in almost every decision he makes, undermining him until even Hardie seems to shrink under her assault: “There might have been webs of influence and deceit in the lifeboat from the very start.”
While Grace narrates the events on the boat, describing the conflicts, skirmishes and arguments, the mood becomes more desperate, more ominous as a showdown threatens between Hardie and Mrs. Grant. Distracting herself with reminiscences of her meeting and courtship with Henry, Grace cannot escape being drawn into the drama that thrusts her into the midst of tragedy and earns her a place on the docket before the judge. Never quite a part of the group, it is Grace’s perspective that Rogan wields with such authority, a near-objective observer as the fragile remnants of society break down without rescue on the horizon and only the strong are sure of their place, where a misguided preacher slips into the sea and a distracted woman is kept afloat by her skirts until the waves take her. Grace has no pretensions, ascribes no heroics to herself: “I have already taken the measure of my own insignificance.” Perhaps that is why Grace lives to tell the tale, while Hardie does not.