Title: Luck of the Titanic
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: May 4, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: YA historical fiction
Valora Luck has two things: a ticket for the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner in the world, and a dream of leaving England behind and making a life for herself as a circus performer in New York. Much to her surprise, though, she’s turned away at the gangway; apparently, Chinese people aren’t allowed into America.
But Val has to get on that ship. Her twin brother, Jamie, who has spent two long years at sea, is on board, as is an influential circus owner. Thankfully, there’s not much a trained acrobat like Val can’t overcome when she puts her mind to it.
As a stowaway, Val should keep her head down and stay out of sight. But the clock is ticking and she has just seven days as the ship makes its way across the Atlantic to find Jamie, audition for the circus owner, and convince him to help get them both into America.
Then one night, the unthinkable happens, and suddenly Val’s dreams of a new life are crushed under the weight of the only thing that matters: survival.
I’ve been a bit obsessed with Titanic this week, after seeing the movie again after so many years, so I decided to dig into this YA historical novel about a Chinese-British teen and her Titanic voyage.
Valora and her twin brother Jamie grew up in London, the children of a Chinese father and a Cockney mother. Their father taught them a thousand ways to get by, whether through get-rich-quick scams, trickery, or performing amazing acrobatics and passing the hat. After the deaths of both parents, Jamie left England behind to work in the boiler-rooms of ships sailing the world, and Val worked as a lady’s assistant to a wealthy upper class woman.
Val’s employer, Mrs. Sloane, booked passage on Titanic for herself and Val, but then died shortly before the sailing date. Val decides to go anyway after learning that Jamie will be onboard as part of a crew of Chinese shipworkers being sent to New York and then Cuba for their next assignment.
Val plans to brazen out the sailing by pretending that Mrs. Sloane is there with her, keeping to herself in her first-class cabin, but plans go awry almost immediately. Val is denied boarding, as the Chinese Exclusion Act is in effect in the United States, and without authorization papers, she’ll be turned away immediately in New York. Val doesn’t take defeat so easily, and deploying her courage and acrobatic skills, she manages to sneak onboard, then find a way to inhabit Mrs. Sloane’s cabin and, courtesy of a black mourning veil, pretend to be the wealthy woman.
Meanwhile, once the ship sails, she reunites with Jamie, and divides her time between the first-class quarters and the lower deck seamen’s quarters, donning “sea slops”, eating in the third class dining hall, and concocting plans to perform a twin acrobatics act for the circus bigwig also traveling on Titanic.
The first 70% or so of Luck of the Titanic is the story of Val’s desperate attempts to avoid having her deceptions discovered, convince Jamie to give up his sea career and start a life with her in New York, and find a way to audition for the circus. And then, of course, none of this matters any longer, once the fateful night of April 14th arrives and Val and Jamie begin a struggle to survive as the Titanic sinks.
As with any book about Titanic, once the ship hits the iceberg, the drama is amplified and the scope of the human tragedy takes over the narrative. Naturally, this section of the book is the most moving and compelling. Val and Jamie take risks and make bold moves to try to ensure the survival of the crew they feel responsible for, but at the same time, each is committed to making sure the other makes it onto a lifeboat before it’s too late.
I found myself not entirely swept up in the book as a whole. It skews a little young, in my opinion — it might be good for a younger teen audience, but as an adult reader who often enjoys YA, I found it a little lean and less than believable. Val’s impersonation of a first class traveler, her stowaway status, and the remarkable luck she has in mostly getting away with it all and finding key allies stretches reality. In particular, the scene of how she gets on board in the first place is so beyond belief that it sets a tone of “okay, REALLY?” that lingers throughout the book.
The writing also didn’t sit particularly well with me. There are some truly clunky descriptions:
His back is steep and contoured like the cliffs of Dover when golden sunlight falls upon them.
… and some that I didn’t particularly understand. I really have no idea what these two are supposed to mean:
His hair tapers to a curve at the nape of his neck, like a hook waiting for a wriggly finger to bait it.
… brown rubber-soled shoes look as faithful as a pair of beagles.
Some of the dialogue is awkward too, although it’s not clear to me if the author is trying to capture era-appropriate slang or the Cockney influence. Either way, it doesn’t particularly flow.
“Jamie’s the oldest born, which means he’s the most important one, and he loves the queasy seasies.”
“Well, aren’t you a nelly naysayer, rabbitin’ on, all gloom and doom.”
I did appreciate learning about the status of the Chinese passengers, the rampant discrimination they faced even among the other immigrants in steerage, and the teachings and superstitions that Val and Jamie learned from their optimistic yet unsuccessful father.
Authors setting fiction in such a well-documented setting have a very specific challenge: Creating fictional characters to inhabit a world where every person present historically is known and accounted for. Some real-life Titanic passengers are present in the narrative, and as in the movie Titanic, where Jack Dawson is missing from ship records because he wasn’t a registered passenger, Val’s stowaway status is a viable excuse for how someone could be on the Titanic without ever becoming part of the written history.
Luck of the Titanic is compelling by the end, but it would be hard to write a story set on the Titanic that isn’t. I had too many issues with the believability of the story and the characters’ actions to truly get absorbed by the book as a whole — but overall, the approach was interesting enough to hold my attention, even if I wasn’t fully invested.