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Shipwrecked Lives

May 1914 - St. Lawrence River, Canada​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

"The Empress was listing to starboard at a dangerous angle. Alice and her son Jamie, a little boy in a sailor suit, sat perched on the railing, looking down at the lifeboat in the water. Several dozen people had jumped into the water in desperation. Tom crawled over to Alice and Jamie with two lifebelts under his arm. 

“Alice put this on,” said Tom.

“But I can swim, Tom. You put it on,” replied Alice.

“Do it now, dear. I'll hold Jamie."

Alice slipped into the lifebelt while Tom held Jamie and locked his hand over the railing. The ship suddenly gave a sharp jerk to starboard and Alice lost her balance slipping off into the water below, leaving her husband and child to fend for themselves."

From the bestselling author of Playing Rudolf Hess, An Absolute Secret, Remembrance Man and White Slaves comes this extraordinary story about the sinking of the Empress of Ireland passenger liner in the St. Lawrence River on a foggy night in May 1914, claiming the lives of 1,012 people. This is the story of the survivors and the failed government inquiry into Canada's worst maritime disaster that led to a whitewash. It is based on the actual testimony of witnesses at the Commission of Inquiry, which was presided over by Lord Mersey, the gruff and opinionated British jurist and politician. Lord Mersey had led the investigation into the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters but was sorely tested by the Empress Inquiry. It tells the story of the ruined captain of the passenger liner, the woman who survived the disaster and tried unsuccessfully to claim the body of her disfigured son, the Rimouski fisherman whose job was to search the debris field for the bodies of the victims, the Norwegians who were quickly condemned by the press, the shysters and wagon-chasers who fraudulently claimed insurance policies on next of kin, and the government inquiry which pitted a multinational transport industry giant against a tiny Norwegian coal-hauling firm.

Book reviews:

"From the very first lines, Kinsey skillfully crafts his novel. We are drawn into the lives of the individuals on the Empress, passengers confused and frightened when loud blasts of the ship's whistle sound and the ship begins to list, then rapidly sink. He weaves the story between the disaster itself and what follows with the survivors in a courtroom as lawyers and witnesses try to unravel the cause of the collision. Kinsey has written a historical novel that is impossible to put down. I found that the transitions from survivor story to courtroom events held my interest from start to finish." Rosalie Grosch, The Norwegian American Journal.

"As a Maritimer, I've always been familiar with the stories of the Titanic and the Atlantic. The sinking of the Empress of Ireland is certainly a tragedy I'd heard of but it wasn't a story I knew much about. I found Nicholas Kinsey's book absolutely fascinating and could certainly draw parallels between the Empress of Ireland's tragic sinking and the Lusitania's. They both happened so quickly that there was absolute chaos on the decks. They also both resulted in intense inquiries afterwards. The historical research was first rate and based on primary sources. Though the book is historical fiction, the facts shone through and it were presented in a very readable way. An important (though terribly sad) part of Canadian history that more people should learn about." BookSirens

"This book offered a fascinating look into a shipwreck that occurred in Canada in 1914. I liked that the author focused on characters from all the different sides of the disaster and its aftermath. I also appreciated all the historical details woven into the story." Goodreads

"I find that stories having a factual basis are the most interesting, especially if the author can weave a believable story around the facts. As was done here. I did not know the story of this shipwreck, and that more lives were lost than in the Titanic, especially so soon after, shows how much the powers-that-be were able to downplay the facts surrounding this horrible incident. No doubt not having an excess of high-profile passengers had something to do with that. This was a story that had to be told." Goodreads