My thoughts in April always come back to Titanic. It is 101 years since the tragic sinking of the grand ocean liner when it struck an iceberg late on April 14th, 2012. The gashed hull quickly put the ship in peril and it was less than three hours later that the ship slipped beneath the sea, taking with her over 1500 lives. The survivors huddled together agains the freezing area, bobbling about in lifeboats through the night. 705 making it to safety when the rescue ship, the Carpathia came.
Eva Hart’s Mother Recalls Titanic Tragedy
A little girl named Eva Hart was on Titanic with her parents. They had left their home in Ilford, England and were on there way to begin a new life in Winnipeg, Canada. Eva and her mother survived the sinking and much later in her life, Eva did a number of interviews about her experience. Her mother, Esther, was not as anxious to talk to the media, but she did give a harrowing first account to her local paper when she returned to England with Eva. Here is a previous post where you can read Esther’s story about the sinking of the Titanic.
This blog celebrates the history of Winnipeg, my hometown, and occasionally allows me to indulge in some wider observations of the world that catch my interest.
Here you will find stories about Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century when the Manitoba capital declared her glory as one of the fastest growing cities in North America. The research behind the stories you will find on this site was done over many years and became the basis for the storyline for my novel, Ravenscraig. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions. Email me at: email@example.com
The early years in Manitoba were very exciting, with Winnipeg recognized as the gateway city for people and goods traveling west to the new frontier. From these years of rapid growth in Winnipeg, 1874-1914, there developed a large group of millionaires and the crop of mansions they built to impress each other.
Historian, Dr. Alan Artibise, referred to these captains of industry as “the commercial elite” and truly Winnipeg was seen by those “down east” in Ontario, as the place to be for those seeking to make or increase their fortunes at the dawn of the 20th century.
But not everyone had a shot at the big money in Winnipeg.
On the other side of the tracks, newly arrived immigrants struggled to overcome the horrors of poverty, disease and anti-foreigner sentiments as they fought to put down roots in the New Country. It is from this determination of the newcomers to survive and prosper that the famed Winnipeg North End came to be.
To help understand the rich mosaic in this colourful history, I’ve included a selection of films, featuring such topics as Jews in Winnipeg, life in a Ted Baryluk’s store in the North End, and a terrific NFB film about a man whose job was to keep the tracks clean for the Winnipeg street cars.
Titanic, I must say, is my true love in research topics so you will find a number of postings about Winnipeg’s Titanic connection, and Titanic in general. In all there were more than thirty passengers on the ship who were on their way to Winnipeg to return home, stay for a visit, or like survivor Eva Hart’s family, to settle in Manitoba as immigrants.
I was a child when I first learned about the Titanic. My dad took us for a drive to point out Mark Fortune’s house on Wellington Crescent and told us about the six people from the Fortune family who were on their way home to Winnipeg when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank. I was horrified, and instantly hooked.
Ravenscraig, the blog, (and title of my novel) is taken from the name of a fictitious home, Ravenscraig Hall, in Winnipeg’s Armstrong’s Point and owned by Rupert Willows, the lead character in the book.
About the novel:
Ravenscraig is about two families: the Willows—wealthy, powerful and anti-Semitic, and the Zigmans—newly arrived Jews, struggling to put down roots in Winnipeg’s North End.
Click on the image below to see the book trailer for Ravenscraig.
I am very excited to announce that I will be participating in the Jewish Book Council Network. What a fantastic organization. The Network program supports authors who write books that are of appeal to a Jewish audience.
From the JBC website: For authors, this is an opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid book tour around North America. For program directors, it is the source of a wide selection of interesting authors who will speak in your community without an honorarium.
In June they will bring together a couple of hundred people from all over Canada and the US who are looking to book authors for events and speaking engagements. Authors, like me, will have a two minute opportunity to make an impression that will hopefully lead to invitations to speak. It has been described by one participant as a combination of the Gong Show and Speed Dating. Can’t wait. Here’s a little video about the event.
More to come. I will update you on all of the details of my trip. I am set to present on June 3rd. It happens that my daughter, Katiana Krawchenko, will also be in New York, so I am looking forward to memories that will be made. Katiana is a journalism senior at the University of Florida and has been granted a ten week internship at CBS News in New York. How proud are the parents?
It’s been a very busy and interesting April with a book tour that took me to Montreal and Winnipeg. I met with old friends and new and was thrilled to discuss Ravenscraig with impassioned readers who had much to say about Rupert Willows and the early days of Winnipeg when it was among the fastest growing cities in North America.
It was great fun to do my first international radio interview a couple of weeks ago, with Marc Montgomery of The Link on Radio Canada.
Click on the photo to link to the interview.
An updated version of the book trailer was posted on Youtube today.
And I am deeply honoured to be in the company of such a fine group of talented writers who have been nominated for the Manitoba Book Awards, which will be announced on Saturday night, April 28th. I am still pinching myself that Ravenscraig, a debut novel, has been short listed for the Carol Shields Award.
Esther Hart was never very keen on the idea of going to Winnipeg. When her husband Benjamin announced his decision to leave Ilford, England and strike out for a new life in Canada, she was immediately apprehensive. But times were hard in the building industry and her husband’s business was suffering. One fateful day, an old friend stopped in to visit. He was an enthusiastic resident of Winnipeg, who had much to say about the booming economy in the Manitoba capital. Benjamin was instantly taken with the idea that emigration would be the answer to his troubles and would give him the potential of a prosperous future. Winnipeg it would be.
Esther and Benjamin along with their young daughter, Eva Hart, were given a festive send off by their friends in Ilford.
Eva and her mother survived the sinking, having spent a harrowing night in the lifeboats, but Benjamin was lost. Mother and daughter immediately returned to England.
The Tale of the “Titanic” told by a rescued Ilford lady. Mrs Ben Hart’s personal and thrilling Narrative. Exclusive to the “Ilford Graphic”
I can honestly say that from the moment the journey to Canada was mentioned, till the time we got aboard the Titanic I never contemplated with any other feelings but those of dread and uneasiness. It was all done in a hurry. My husband of late had not been successful in business and things looked like going from bad to worse.
He was a very clever carpenter and his chest of tools was considered to be as perfect and expensive as any carpenter could wish for. At any rate he valued them at £100. He was going out to start building with a Mr Wire at Winnipeg. Mr Wire has since written to me expressing his deep regret at Ben’s untimely loss, and adding. “There were five Winnipeg men lost on the Titanic and I might have been one of them.”
The idea seized on Ben’s imagination. “I’ll go out to a new country,” he said. “Where I’ll either sink or swim.” In fact, during the time prior to our leaving Ilford, the latter statement was always in his mouth. I little knew then how sadly prophetic it was to turn out for my poor dear.
I said at the commencement that I viewed the journey with dread and uneasiness, but in saying that I do not wish anyone to think that I ever imagined anything so dreadful would happen as did happen. You see I was leaving my father and mother when they were at fairly advanced age, and neither of them in the best of health and I knew that in saying goodbye, I was saying goodbye forever: but it has pleased God to take my husband and send me back to them. Then I was leaving all the friends I had known in Ilford for so many years: and lastly, I dreaded the sea: the idea of being on the sea at night was bad enough, but for six or seven, I could not contemplate it, it was a nightmare to me.
Well, we said all our “Good-byes” and reached Southampton, and almost the first thing Ben did was take me to see the Titanic. He was always an enthusiastic in anything he was interested in: and he could not have been more enthusiastic over the Titanic had he been a part proprietor of it. “There! old girl,” he said, “there’s a vessel for you! You’re not afraid now.” I tried to share his confidence, but my heart quite failed me when we got aboard and I counted the number of boats there were. I said, “Ben, we are carrying over 2,000 people and there are not enough boats for half of them if anything happens.” He laughed at my fears and said that beyond boat drills he did not expect the boats would come off the davits. But from that moment I made up my mind to one thing, till we were safe on land at New York.
Nothing should ever persuade me to undress, and nothing did, although Ben at times got very cross with me. So each night I simply rested in my bunk, fully dressed and fully prepared. God knows why, for the worst.
We were fortunate in having some very nice people at our table. We were in parties of eight in the second saloon, and our party included a lady and gentleman from the Cape, Mr and Mrs Brown and their daughter, who were on their way to Vancouver. Mr Guggenheim’s (a millionaire) chauffeur, (both Mr and Mrs Guggenheim and he were drowned), a lady named Mrs Mary Mack, whose body has since been recovered, and Mr Hart, myself, and baby.
Mr Brown and Ben got on capitally together. They were the exact opposite of each other. Mr Brown was a quiet, reserved man who scarcely ever spoke, and dadda was fond of talking and so they got on well, -promenaded the deck together, had their mid-day “Bass” together, and smoked their pipes together. Indeed, Mrs Brown said that she had never seen her husband “take” to anyone like he had to my Ben.
Oh dear! Oh dear! To think that of the eight at the table, four were taken and four were left. I can see them bright, happy faces now as we sat round that table at meal times, talking of the future, they were all so confident, so looking forward to a new life in a new land, and well they found it, but in God’s way, not theirs.
Now a very curious thing happened on the Saturday night. We had made splendid progress, and although I was still far from easy in my mind. I was as content as I could be off the land. I heard someone remark with glee that we were making a bee line for New York. I knew we were going at a tremendous speed, and it was the general talk,-I cannot say what truth there was in it- that the Captain and offers were “on” something good if we broke the record.
But on the Saturday night I was resting in my bunk and my husband was sound asleep above me. Everything was quiet, except the throb of the screw and a strange straining and creaking of everything in the cabin, which I had noticed all the voyage. I may have just dozed off when I was awakened by a feeling as if some gigantic force had given the ship a mighty push behind.-I could even hear the swirl of the waters which such a push to such a vessel would cause. I sat up,-no doubt as to my being wide awake, again came the push and the swirl, and yet again a third time. For a few minutes I was dazed, frozen with terror of I know not what. Then I stood up and shook my husband who still sleeping soundly “Ben,” I said, “Ben wake up,-get up,-something dreadful has happened or is going to happen.” He was a little cross, as a man naturally is when he is woke from a sound sleep by the ungrounded fears (as he thinks) of a woman, but he saw that I was upset, and so he got up and partly dressed, and went up on the hurricane deck, and soon returned and assured me that the sea was calm and that the ship was travelling smoothly.
The next morning at breakfast, he laughingly told our table about it, and said what he was going to do that (Sunday night) to keep me quiet. He was going to insist upon my having a strong glass of hot grog to make me sleep. Mr Brown explained explained the creaking and straining by saying that as it was a new vessel everything was settling down into it’s proper place. “Why,” he said “When we get to New York, it’s more than likely that a lot of the paint will have come away, a lot of the joints have started,” and so on. “That’s all very well,” I said, “but what about those awful jerks one after the other?” That he could not explain, nor anybody else. I say it was a warning from God to me, for I think that perhaps I was the only one of the 2,000 odd about who went in daily and nightly dread of the unforeseen. But had I told it to those in authority! Would anyone have listened to a silly, weak woman’s superstitious fears? Would they have gone one hair’s breadth out of their course? Would they have ordered one revolution less per minute of the screw? So I could only do what women have had to do from the beginning, eat my heart out with fear and wait.
Now if I had known that just at this time of the year the icebergs get across the track of the Atlantic liners, a little incident which occurred on this Sunday would have sent me straight to the Captain, even if I’d have had to climb on to his bridge. But the simple things we ought to know we are never told. My husband was always a man who could bear extremes of heat and cold better than anyone I have ever met. All through those trying days of heat last year, when everyone else was melting and parched, he never once grumbled, but kept as cool as a cucumber. And the same with the cold. I have known him, when other people have been hanging over the fires, in and out of the house with his coat off, laughing at the poor shivering ones. And yet at mid day on this fatal Sunday, he suddenly came up to baby and myself, and said rubbing his hands, “How cold it has turned. I feel as if there was not a warm drop of blood in my body. Come and have a romp with daddy,” he said to baby, and together they went off and ran and romped on the hurricane desk.
We were in the iceberg region and the Almighty sent a warning to my husband,-the man who was never cold before now shivered and shook like one stricken with ague.
But, beyond thinking it a curious thing, we took no heed.
And now, I come to a part of my story that I shrink from telling. Indeed, I think I have lingered over the first part because I dread relating the events of that awful night. I have read some where of people living a whole lifetime in a few hours. I know now that I have done so. To have gone through what I went through, to have suffered what I have suffered, to have seen what I have seen, to know what I know, and still to be alive, and above all-thank the Lord-to still preserve my reason, is a great and a growing marvel to me.
We had retired to our cabin about 10, and my husband who thoroughly enjoyed the life aboard ship and drank his fill of the ozone,-he could never get enough of it,-was soon undressed and fast asleep in his bunk. My little Eva too was sound asleep, and I was sitting on my portmanteau with my head resting on the side of my bunk. And then all of a sudden there came the most awful sound I have ever heard in my life,-a dreadful tearing and ripping sound,-how any people were awake at the time can say they scarcely felt a shock I cannot understand,-the sound of great masses of steel and iron being violently torn, rent and cut asunder.
I was on my feet in an instant, for I knew something dreadful had happened. I shook Ben, and he awoke. “Daddy.” I said, “get up at once. We have hit something I am sure and it’s serious.” Poor dear Ben! He was partly asleep still, and he said, “Oh woman,-again! I really don’t know what I shall do with you?” “Ben,” I said,-not loudly, but with a quiet insistence which influenced him far more,-something has happened; go up on deck and find out what it is.” He went up in his nightshirt and bare feet; in a few moments he was back again. He said, “All the men are at the lifeboats,-it’s only a lifeboat drill.” I said, “They don’t have lifeboat drills at 11 at night, I tell you something has happened,-dress quickly and let us dress the baby.” So he hurriedly put on his pants and his overcoat, put his big motor coat over me and then dressed the sleeping little girl. Just then a stewardess, with whom I was on friendly terms came along and said she would soon find out all about it. She knew the Marconi operator and would ask him. So she went away and quickly came back saying that everything was all right. But I said, “Everything is not all right, we have struck something and the water is coming in.” I think by this time Ben had realised,-although he would not say so,-that danger was ahead, for when he got up on “B” deck, he turned away for a few moments, and said his Jewish prayers. The next few minutes were so crowded with events, so fraught with all that matters in this world,-life to a few of us,-death to the majority of us,-that I have no coherent recollection of what happened.
I know that there was a cry of “She’s sinking.” I heard hoarse shouts of “Women and children first,” and then from boat to boat we were hurried, only to be told “already full.” Four boats we tried and at the fifth there was room. Eva was thrown in first, and I followed her. Just then, a man who had previously tried to get in, succeeded in doing so, but was ordered out, and the officer fired his revolver into the air to let everyone see it was loaded, and shouted out, “Stand back! I say, stand back! The next man who puts his foot in this boat, I will shoot him down like a dog.” Ben, who had been doing what he could to help the women and children, said quietly, “I’m not going in, but for God’s sake look after my wife and child.” And little Eva called out to the officer with the revolver “Don’t shoot my daddy,-You shan’t shoot my daddy.” What an experience for a little child to go through! At the age of seven to have passed through the valley of the shadow of death. I wonder if she will ever forget it? I know I shan’t, if I live for a hundred years.
So that was the last I saw of my poor lost dear,-no farewell kiss, no fond word,-but in a moment he had gone and we were hanging over the sea,-fifty or sixty feet above it, and then there were two or three horrible jerks as the boat was lowered from the davits and we were in the water, so crowded that we could scarcely move.
In the midst of all these stunning blows one despairing tact alone seized my thoughts: I knew, and a woman is `never wrong in such matters, that I had seen the last of my Ben, and that I had lost the best and truest friend, the kindest and most thoughtful husband that ever a woman had.
The officer in charge of our boat was standing on that raised part of it right at the end. We were all women and children aboard (at least I thought so then, but we were not, as I will presently tell you) and we were all crying and sobbing; and the officer said, not roughly, but I think with a kindly desire to keep our minds off the terrible time we had gone through. “Don’t cry,-please don’t cry. You’ll have something else to do than cry; some of you will have to handle the oars. For God’s sake stop crying. If I had not the responsibility of looking after you I would put a bullet through my brain.” So we got away from the ship for a safe distance, for there was no doubt now about her sinking. The front portion of her was pointing downwards and she appeared to be breaking in halves. Then with a mighty and tearing sob, as of some gigantic thing instinct with life, the front portion of her dived, for that is the only word I can use properly to describe it,-dived into the sea, and the after part with a heavy list, also disappeared. And then a wonderful thing happened. Apart from the swirl of the water close to the vessel, caused by such a mass sinking, the sea was as smooth as glass; it seemed as if the Almighty, in order that as many should be saved as possible had with a merciful hand, smoothed and calmed the waters. For a few moments we could see everything that was happening, for, as the vessel sank, millions and millions of sparks flew up and lit everything around us. And in an instant the sea was alive with wreckage,-with chairs, pillows, and rugs, benches, tables, cushions, and, strangely enough, black with an enormous mass of coffee beans. And the air was full of the awful and despairing cries of drowning men. And we were helpless to help, for we dared not go near them.
Our officer was busy shouting out till he was hoarse, “Let all the boats keep as near together as possible. That’s our only chance of being picked up. If we separate we are lost. Keep together.” An inky blackness now settled over us, and not a soul in our boat had a match; but the officer found in his pockets an electric torch, which he kept flashing, shouting out all the time,- “Keep together,-it’s our only chance.” The duty that the officer allotted to me was to bale the water out of the boat. While sitting there I had the impression that there was somebody near me who ought not to be there. So, when I could get my elbows free I put my hand down under the seat and touched a human form. It was a poor wretch of a man who had smuggled himself into the boat, and had sat there during all that awful time, under the seat in about six inches of water. When we got him out he was so stiff he could scarcely move.
It had got a little lighter now, and our officer had collected nearly all the boats together; and he called from one to the other, “How many in yours-how many in yours?” and then he discovered that there was room in those other boats to put the whole of our fifty-five in, so we were transferred to them, and the officer now collected a few seaman in his now empty boat and rowed away to see what he could find. So, with proper management another fifty-five people could easily have been saved. I cannot understand why, in the midst of such terrible doings, these boats left the ship without their full number of passengers; fifty-five precious lives lost either through selfishness or carelessness, I know not which.
It was no easy matter for me to get from one boat to the other. I am no light weight at the best of times: but now I was weak from want of sleep,-weak with the terror of the night,-and laden with Ben’s heavy motor coat. Eva had been handed in, and I shall never forget my feelings when I saw her leave, and found myself unable to get a footing on the boat she was in. At last I managed it, how I could not tell. Eva was suffering from a violent attack of vomiting: for, when they had thrown her into the first boat from the Titanic she had hit her stomach on the edge of the boat. And there the poor little thing was, and I could not get near her to wipe her mouth. So there we sat the weary night through until at eight in the morning, the Carpathia came on the scene. I always thought that these ship boats had to be provisioned beforehand, in view of possible accidents, but there was no water, nor were there biscuits in the boat. An oversight I suppose: but one fraught with terrible consequences had not the Carpathia arrived in good time.
Gradually the welcome dawn broke; and as the sun rose and we looked at where the sky and sea met, we saw one of the most wonderful sights that could be imagined. Right away there, stretching for miles and miles, there appeared what seemed to us, an enormous fleet of yachts, with their glistening sails all spread. As the sun grew brighter they seemed they seemed to sparkle with innumerable diamonds. They were icebergs; and, moving slowly and majestically along all by itself, a mile or so in length, in form like the pictures of Gibraltar I have seen, was the monster iceberg, the cause of all our trouble.
And now about 8 o’clock the “Carpathia” came into sight and we were all aboard by 8.30. I cannot say much of my life on board this vessel. It was no small matter for a ship to take on another 700 people, many of them but lightly clad, most of them ill, and all suffering severely from shock; all was done for us that could be done: but I could neither rest nor sleep. My little Eva was still suffering from her vomiting attack and I found my hands full in nursing her; but when at night she was asleep, I could do nothing but walk the corridor, up and down, up and down, and thinking, thinking all the time. So much did I walk about at night that the kind hearted sailors christened me The Lady of the Watch.
Well, eventually we arrived at New York. And what can I say of the kindness of the “Women’s Relief Committee,” and the help they rendered us poor stranded souls. Kindness! that’s but a poor word; and yet I can find no other for their intensely practical sympathy. No formulas, no questions. We had got to be helped and that quickly, and quickly they did it. In a short space of time with a speed that seemed incredible, there was a sufficiency of clothing for every destitute woman and child-my women readers will understand me when I say that everything a woman needed was there in abundance-from a blouse to a safety pin, underclothing, stays, stockings, garters, suspenders, hair pins, boots of all sizes, each pair with laces or a button hook in them as was necessary; I have never heard of such foresight. I have never experienced such real kindness. God bless the ladies of the “Women’s Relief Committee of New York,” say I heartily and fervently. Why, Mrs Satterlee actually drove me in her beautiful car to the hotel where I was to stay pending my return to England, and wanted me to go to lunch with her in her house, but my heart was too full for that. She knew the reason and appreciated it like the lady she is. One touching little incident occurred before I sailed for home on the “Celtic,” and that was the receipt of a letter from little children in New Jersey. They had heard of my Eva and they sent her a Dollar bill with a beautiful little letter. I don’t think that bill will ever be changed; for both it and the letter will be framed.
There is but little to add. I returned on the “Celtic” with five other ladies from the “Titanic,” including Mrs Ada Clarke, of Southampton. We were treated with every kindness and consideration . A lady in the first saloon sent out word that whatever we wanted in the way of fruit or any other delicacies not included in our menu, we were to have.
And now I have only one object in life, and that is the future of my little Eva. My lost Ben had such dreams of her future; he meant to do such things for her; and, whatever money I get, apart from the bare cost of the necessities of life, shall be devoted to her up-bringing in such a way as shall realise, as far as my endeavours and finances can go, his wishes with regard to her.
How exciting it is for me, a Titanic fanatic, that this coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic setting sail on her maiden voyage.
About the book:
Ravenscraig is historical fiction that is of particular appeal to readers interested in Jewish migration to North America, The Titanic, and anyone with an affection for Winnipeg’s history in its boom town years, a century ago.
Nothing is more important to Rupert J. Willows than the image he has built to hide the deep secret of his true identity. A master manipulator, the ruthless and charismatic Rupert schemes his way into the upper class when he purchases the opulent mansion, Ravenscraig Hall. It is the turn of the 20th century in one of the fastest growing cities in North America; a brawling, raucous, frontier boomtown with a taste for fine theatre and loose women. True power is within Rupert’s grasp as long as his secret stays buried.
Malka Zigman is a survivor. Orphaned in London, she has just joined her Uncle Zev and his hardworking Jewish family in Canada. Recent immigrants who escaped from poverty and violence in czarist Russia, the Zigmans struggle to put down roots in the New World. With family resources stretched thin, Malka takes a risk. Everything is about to change as she reinvents herself as Maisie Rosedale and crosses over to the exclusive world of “the English” as the new maid at Ravenscraig.
Tragedies, and triumphs grip the lives of these two families as their futures inextricably twine together to culminate on the Titanic.
Sandi Krawchenko Altner is a Jew by choice who enjoyed a long career in television and radio news in Canada. You may remember her as a reporter for Pulse News at Montreal’s CFCF TV. Sandi was born and raised in Winnipeg, and is a fifth descendent of the first group of Ukrainian immigrants who settled near Vita, Manitoba, in 1896. She grew up with a keen interest in her roots, and a deep love for history. Sandi now lives and writes in Florida. She and her husband, Bob Altner have two daughters and two spoiled dogs. Ravenscraig is her first novel.
Praise for Ravenscraig:
Ravenscraig has been shortlisted for the 2011 Manitoba Historical Society’s prestigious Margaret McWilliams Award in Popular History.
“Wonderful…Welcome to Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg Twist.”
-Ron Robinson, Winnipeg Free Press
“Ravenscraig is superb. It is a book that almost seems to have been written specifically for me, involving Jewish immigrants who resemble what my great-grandparents were like, and reflecting the attitude and hope that I have in life.”
—Louis Kessler, past president, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada
I could quite happily spend an entire day traipsing from one blog to the next reading stories about Titanic and other topics, discovering writers and researchers who share my passion for historical research. Alas, with work assignments to complete, I rarely find large enough blocks of time to indulge in such delicious, and time consuming meanderings. Yet, when I do, I am almost always rewarded.
Truth be told, you have to find your way through so much junk and regurgitation before you hit the true gems. But the gems are there, and they must be shared.
This prompts to me start a new category on this blog, which I will call “Research Gems” to recognize thoughtful and interesting work. All of the reposted work will have RG: in the title so it can be easily found.
I decided to launch Digs and Docs for a very simple reason: To cover topics that I want to read about. I follow a good number of blogs, including more than a few on archaeology and history. But none of them are focused on the many and fascinating ways that material culture, historical documents, culture, and the past and present, intersect. A fundamental premise of mine, one that is widely held in my field, is that the objects (material culture) and writings (documents, archives) of people in the past are not merely of the past, but in a very real sense, are part of the present. They influence the ways we think and act today, and are part of our understanding of who we are as contemporary people living as part of a contemporary society. Too often, though, we seem to forget this. We imagine that our cultural landscape is something new and unique to us, without precedent in human history. We fail to realize that our present is merely a point in the grand sweep of history, and the past has exerted a strong influence on the makeup of that present.
The Titanic treasure trove is going up for auction. Many critics will sum up the announcement by saying, “greed wins out in the end”. After 18 years of court battles, the artifacts that have been recovered from the wreck of the Titanic will be sold just before the 100th anniversary of the sinking. Guernsey’s of New York will conduct the auction, and makes the following announcement on their website:
“On April 11, 2012, precisely one hundred years to the day of Titanic’s maiden voyage, there will be an unprecedented auction of artifacts recovered from the wreck site of the legendary ocean liner, and related intellectual property and intangibles. Guernsey’s will be offering all of the assets and rights of RMS Titanic, Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions, Inc. (NASDAQ: PRXI), which for 18 years has served as steward and salvor-in-possession of Titanic and its wreck site.”
The assets, according to Guernseys, “include the complete collection of more than 5,000 artifacts, as well as other extraordinary intangible assets, in the first and only sale of objects that have been recovered from the wreck site of Titanic two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface.”
The question of the precise number of artifacts in the “complete collection” will undoubtedly raise the ire of Titanic followers and purists. The reported number of artifacts removed by the salvor are no longer available on the Premier Exhibitions website. However, a year ago, the website’s FAQ section was much longer and offered the following:
No. 53 How many expeditions has RMS Titanic, Inc. conducted?
RMS Titanic, Inc. has conducted seven research and recovery expeditions to the Titanic’s wreck site in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2004.
No. 54 How many artifacts has RMS Titanic, Inc. recovered?
To date, RMS Titanic, Inc. has recovered over 5,500 objects from the wreck site, ranging from delicate porcelain dishes to a 17-ton section of the hull.
The documentary Titanic Revealed, produced in 2004 states there were more than 6,000 artifacts recovered. It also explores a number of the arguments at play in the raging debate over whether recovering artifacts from Titanic was grave-robbing or an effort to preserve history.
The rules governing the auction of Titanic salvage say all of the artifacts must be sold in one lot, so any dreams fanatics might have of successfully bidding on a Titanic teacup to display in the family china cabinet are impossible. There is also a series of court ordered covenants and conditions that are intended to ensure that the public will continue to have access to seeing the collection, or at least part of it. One would hope that there will also be strict oversight of how the winning bidder is protecting the pieces and making them available to the public. The temptation to slip a few of those items into the black market might well be exceptionally high.
You may have been among the 22 million people who have seen some of the auction items in the traveling Titanic exhibit that brings a couple of hundred items from spoons to plates and buttons to a town near you.
For a fee of about $20.00 you are given a “ticket” with a passenger or crew name so that at the end of the tour you can learn whether that person survived. Six such tours are simultaneously offered in different cities at any given time and both Edmonton and Regina have shows at this writing. The tours are for profit, and done on the cheap, with little more than the bare minimum to satisfy the searching gaze of true Titanic enthusiasts, but they provide, at least, a chance to see something of what remains from Titanic.
The future of those tours, as popular as they are, is now unclear. One can only anticipate that a fresh round of court appearances will ultimately define what is to become of the Titanic treasures and the access the public will have to appreciate them.
I count myself lucky that I knew so little about the publishing industry when I started writing Ravenscraig. It would have gotten in the way of the writing.
Well over a decade ago, I tasted the freedom of “making up a story”, when I started to play with words outside of work. As a news reporter, my writing was constrained by the rules of truth and responsibility, and a strong journalistic ethic to be unbiased and thorough. It was a tantalizing treat to find that fiction would cut me loose. I could invent anything. Well, not exactly. I’m not the science fiction type and I’m not much for literature that involves flying dragons or dripping daggers. While I love reading history of any kind, as well as mysteries, biographies, political memoires, and even the occasional juicy “beach trash” novel, as a writer, my heart is in historical fiction.
So it was that I gravitated to the news stories of Winnipeg, in the late 19th century and found myself writing a novel. I buried myself in research and learned fascinating tales about a hard living western saloon town bent on success. I spent evenings and weekends combing through the Internet as well as piles of documents, tattered books, scholarly works, newspaper archives and microfilmed testimony from a hundred years ago. I learned about prostitutes, typhoid epidemics, the struggles of immigrants, anti-Semitism, fire fighting in the 1890s, travel in the gilded age, and of course, I became all but swallowed up by the most appealing subject of all: the Titanic.
I developed a great passion for historical research, but it was the people I studied who set my imagination on fire. A parade of characters, some true, some figments, wandered into my mind, demanding that I pay attention and hear what they had to say. Writing their experiences, dealing with their emotions and living with their joys and heartaches became a very fulfilling journey over a great many years.
If you are not a writer, and perhaps, even if you are, about now you might think me a bit of a nut, someone who has imaginary friends to hang out with and lives a small and withered life in the back corner of a dusty library, communing with spirits. I can assure you that I am actually quite well grounded, and deeply content in my life, and that I prefer to sit outside when I write. (I gave up snow for palm trees.) But we can talk more about the satisfaction gained from living as a writer on another day.
A part of every trip to Winnipeg was and is dedicated to research. Most trips started with visiting Burton Lysecki and Karen Sigurdson at the fabulous Burton Lysecki Book Store. They specialize in rare Manitoba works and always kept special books aside for me, and helped me track down works I needed. I also spent a lot of time at the Manitoba Archives, the Manitoba Legislative Library, Heritage Winnipeg, the City of Winnipeg Archives, and the Jewish Historical Society, where I read family accounts of early Winnipeg memories.
More than anything it was the photos of those many years ago that truly inspired my desire to learn more about how people managed.
There was such great poverty and hardship suffered by so many people in the foreign quarter.
It is astonishing to think about it, especially when we look at pictures of children. The Foote collection at the Manitoba Archives is particularly interesting and sobering.
Equally of interest to me was learning about the wealthy class. Winnipeg, like so many other cities with rapid growth at the turn of the century was a city of stark contrasts and home to a number of millionaires who traveled the world, enjoyed theatre, opera and the musical society as well as sports such as curling, golf, and fox hunting. There were two distinct worlds in Winnipeg and undoubtedly many people lived out their entire lives never seeing “how the other half lived”.
In 2009 I was ready to expose my work to friends and family. A cumbersome prospect for a novel of 500 pages. My mother certainly wasn’t going to read anything like this on a computer. I found a print on demand company that charges you by the book. I ordered a few a copies and it was the best thing I could have done. When that box arrived and I opened it, on March 6th, 2009, I was over the moon with excitement. It looked like a book. It hefted like a book. And the best was, it didn’t look like it was going to fall apart. I felt like an author for the first time.
To my utter delight, I had very encouraging feedback from my advance readers. Three comments stand out.
First from my friend Jane, an oncologist in Florida, who called me on a Sunday afternoon: “Sandi, I have to tell you that first I wanted to read this only because you’re my friend, and I’m too polite to have said no to you. I’m a hundred pages in and just had to call to let you know that this is really good.”
Janet, a dear friend in Montreal: “I was reading your book while in line at the grocery store cash register, and I was so taken with the story, I had tears running down my face. The manager offered me a chair, so I could weep in comfort while I finished the chapter.”
My greatest worry was how this was going to read in the Jewish community in Winnipeg. I am a Jew by choice, having converted in 2005. I have no genetic link to Judaism that I know of. My knowledge comes from study so it was very important to me that the story rang true among those whose roots are among the Jewish pioneers of Winnipeg. I sent the draft to Louis Kessler, former president of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, whom I first met in Junior High. We were in class together at Edmund Partridge.
Louis sent me this note: “I thought Ravenscraig was superb. You can add another dozen superlatives here. But it is a book that you almost seem to have written specifically for me, being located in Winnipeg, referring to landmarks and locations that have meaning to me, involving Jewish immigrants who resemble what my great-grandparents were like, and reflecting the attitude and hope that I have in life.”
What followed next was sending the book out to publishers. The letters came back gently refusing the work. But one in particular was very encouraging. In evaluating the manuscript, the editor wrote:
“There is a great deal to admire as well as to be charmed by in the novel: Ms Altner’s ability to imagine herself into the minds-and hearts-of characters who are very different from each other, and distant from ourselves by virtue of the traditions and conditions of the time. I learned a great deal about the growth of the city of Winnipeg, which I have always thought one of the most intriguing cities in Canada (western yet not quite, the incubator of fiercely held political/social beliefs, an arts capital), and found the approach to issues such as the pressure to assimilate, never mind outright racism, sensitively and intelligently treated.”
This editor, whom I have never met, but to whom I am indebted, had also provided clues on what was needed to address the weaknesses in the manuscript. I rewrote the book twice over the following 18 months, conjuring up an imaginary version of this editor to rake me over the coals and help me find the path to a cleaner story.
I cautiously put the new version into the hands of a select few new readers. Among them was an old Winnipeg friend who had gone into the film business in Toronto, Greg Klymkiw. Greg was a tremendous help in both his enthusiasm for the work, and his bold statement. “I want to be your editor.” Over several months Greg would “Skype me in” and we’d have these fabulous story building sessions talking about characters, story lines and how to think about writing action as opposed to reflection. I am very grateful for Greg’s valuable and generous input and can only say that if you ever have the opportunity to work with him, you will be truly blessed.
At the same that I was working through new revisions with Greg, Ravenscraig caught the attention of Peter St. John of Heartland Associates and the long road to find a publisher ended in Winnipeg with Heartland purchasing the Canadian rights. Publisher and editor, Barbara Huck, provided the polishing touch to the manuscript and was the driving force to get it out in time for Christmas and Hannukah. This week Ravenscraig is rolling off the presses at Friesens in Altona, Manitoba. A Manitoba story with a Manitoba publisher and a Manitoba printer. I am utterly thrilled that Heartland took this on and was so determined to make this happen.
It is a long and interesting road to bring a book through traditional publishing, especially in these challenging times in the industry. Thank you, Peter and, especially Barbara, for moving mountains to make this dream come true.
Heartland and Associates, a Manitoba publishing house, has purchased the Canadian rights to Ravenscraig by Sandi Krawchenko Altner.
The book will be launched in Winnipeg on November 29, 2011, at the McNally Robinson store at Grant Park.
A sweeping epic set at the turn of the 20th century, Ravenscraig reveals the secrets and lies that tie two families together. Rupert Willows has hidden away his past to manipulate his way to wealth and power. Zev Zigman, a devout Jew, mounts a desperate struggle to bring his family out of Russia and put down roots in Winnipeg’s North End.
Tragedies, triumphs, and the Titanic shape the lives of these two families as their futures entwine to illuminate a dark corner of Winnipeg’s past when it was the fastest growing city in the Dominion.
About the Author:
Sandi Krawchenko Altner enjoyed an award-winning career in television and radio news in Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal, before she left to follow her passion for writing fiction. She is a fifth generation descendent of the first colony of Ukrainian immigrants to settle in Stuartburn, Manitoba in 1896. Sandi grew up with a keen interest in her roots and a deep love of history. A Jew by choice, Sandi celebrated conversion in 2005. She lives, writes and blogs in Florida where she is active in her synagogue. Sandi and her husband have two daughters and two happy dogs. Ravenscraig is her first novel.
Click on the image below to see the book trailer for Ravenscraig.