That Fatal Night: A Dear Canada Book, Guest Post by Laura MacDonald

When I found out the theme for this month was Canadian Children’s Literature, my initial reaction was “Oh well, maybe I can write something next month…”

I have never thought of myself as someone who reads a lot of Canadian Literature, let alone Canadian Children’s Literature – it just never seems to be on my radar. But then I found myself at the library last week and decided to peruse the Canadian Children’s Literature section, just to see if anything would catch my interest, and suddenly realized that there were a solid two years of my childhood/early adolescence when I simply ate up the Dear Canada books. My mother could not buy them for me fast enough. Diary formatted novels written about Canadian history by some of the best children’s authors Canada has to offer (Jean Little, Sarah Ellis, Kit Pearson, Janet Lunn – just to name a few), it doesn’t get much more Canadian than that. Not to mention the fact that the books all come in colourful hardcover with a super sweet built-in ribbon bookmark.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Sarah Ellis  and hear her speak at the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable (VCLR) Author/Illustrator Breakfast, an event that was held in October 2013. (I will be hearing her speak again in February when she returns to UBC to speak as part of the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Colloquium series). At the VCLR breakfast I purchased a Sarah Ellis Dear Canada book, That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1912, that I had never read before (perhaps because it was published in 2011 meaning that I was a university student at the time and no longer a 12-year-old girl). So, with this being Canadian Children’s Literature month at The Book Wars, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make some time to read That Fatal Night.

That-Fatal-Night copy

One of the first things that struck me about this book was the fact that the historical event it centres around is the sinking of the Titanic – an event I had never associated with Canadian history before. But the story works because our protagonist/diary writer/narrator, Dorothy Wilton, is a Canadian girl from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is booked passage on the Titanic for her journey home from England where she has been visiting her grandparents.

There was a lot to like about this book. First of all, I loved our narrator, Dorothy – the girl’s got spunk. On the very first page we learn that she has been given this notebook to help her sort through her emotions surrounding the Titanic incident. Her response is to write the following:

Many people drowned. I survived. Miss Pugh did not. Now I’m home. That is what happened. Done. Over.

It is clear that this is something Dorothy does not want to talk about.

Which leads me to the next thing I loved about this text, the narrative deals with the internal emotional turmoil of both post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt. This is something I have personally never come across in children’s literature (I’m sure its out there, but this was a first for me). In an entry dated May 26, placing it just over a month after the sinking of the Titanic, Dorothy writes:

I don’t like the way I am. I don’t like waking up in the night, afraid, but I can’t even remember what was going on in my dream. I don’t like the feeling of being outside myself.

This is not the only place Dorothy mentions feeling upset or discontented. Eventually she begins to open up by writing in the style of a play – providing lists of dramatis personae and including act and scene numbers. This becomes a sort of coping mechanism for her and she eventually finds that telling the story she needs to tell comes easily to her. I won’t spoil it for you, but I think its safe to say that both Dorothy and readers are happy when the full story is finally revealed.