Retelling a little-known story from history can be both a source of inspiration and a dramatic reminder of the best and worst in human behavior.Such is the case with the elegantly written and poignant The Sea Shall Embrace Them.
In the autumn of 1854, the United States and Britain both sought preeminence on the high seas for the commercial maritime business that was dramatically increasing with the advent of the steamship. Mail, cargo, precious imports and exports, and the newly thriving passenger travel made crossing the Atlantic, from New York to Liverpool, big business. The main British line was Cunard; the American, Collins. The fleets from these two lines competed fiercely for fastest crossing (time was money) and most luxurious accommodations.
In October 1854, at a time before sea lanes were
established, a French vessel, Vesta, struck the American steamship Arctic. Arctic sank within a short time, with a loss of hundreds of lives.
The story of this disaster, which predates the Titanic tragedy by 58 years, retells the events of that horrible, foggy night when the collision happened. Shaw's narrative is riveting and compelling. His descriptions of the bravery of Arctic's captain, and the villainy of some of the crew in those
last hours, are sobering and evocative. Every woman and child on board died, while many of the crew survived.
Shaw'sbook is a page-turner. And in writing Arctic's story, the author recovers for us both an
important moment in maritime history and an intimate and very human perspective from which to understand it.The Sea Shall Embrace Them moves us as it sheds light on an event that deserves to be better known and gives us glimpses into both the heroic and the profane.
Elena Simon lives in New York City.