The sinking of the Titanic is one of those infamous historical events that even a hundred years later has the power to imprint souls. As a teenager, I spent hours in the historical events section of our local bookstore. As a child of the nineties, I watched James Cameron’s Titanic on repeat, and to this day posit (if you’re willing to listen) that the door could have carried Jack and Rose both. I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of the Titanic disaster and its survivors. Turns out, I was wrong. Among the 706 survivors were six Chinese men. Survivors I had never heard of. One of whom was even pulled out of the freezing water by a returning lifeboat. How had I missed their stories when the Titanic disaster had consumed much of my teenage brain space? Answer: Their survival was vilified. Their stories were purposefully written out of history.
Loosely based on the historic disaster, Luck of the Titanic delves into the (true) story of the eight Chinese men aboard the doomed ship, bringing them to life with fictional narratives (after all, little is known about these men) and focusing especially on the racism and culture of discrimination they would have experienced. Stacey Lee seamlessly marries fact with fiction, weaving together the lives of actual passengers (Albert Ankeny Stewart, an investor in the Ringling Brothers Circus) and crew members (Captain Smith and J. Bruce Ismay) with those of her fictional characters. The most notable of which: the Luck twins, Valora and James.
Val and James arrive aboard the Titanic under different stars. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, Valora can’t enter the US or board the ill-fated ship without special documentation. With her employer (Mrs. Sloan) recently deceased, gone are Valora’s chances of legally traveling in the 1st class cabin Mrs. Sloan had booked for their voyage. James wants nothing less than inside the US (a place even more hostile toward the Chinese than his home country Great Britain). Well, maybe James wants one thing less, a return to the acrobat life his sister so desires. James is a sailor and on his way to South America (with his mates) to fulfill a work contract.
Valora, though, will do whatever it takes (including sneaking aboard the ship) to convince her brother that he was made for something more than the boiler room. And as Lady Luck would have it, Albert Ankeny Stewart (just the man who can get them a permit into the US and a spot with the Ringling Brothers Circus) is aboard Titanic. Now, all Val needs is to orchestrate an audition—and convince her mule-headed brother that the future she envisions for them is better than the one he’s accepted for himself.
The pace is sharp with descriptive elements that will make you feel as though you’re walking along Scotland Road (the spine of the 3rd class deck). The reader can’t help but feel the looming countdown to the inevitable doom. Luck of the Titanic inescapably (because it has to) ends in disaster. Yet Lee’s focus is on the (excluded from history and true) story of the Chinese sailors and that of (fictional) siblings Valora and James. Making Luck of the Titanic, above all, a story that addresses and exposes discrimination, but also one of friendships, sibling bonds, and even hope found in dark places.
Luck of the Titanic shows invariably the tragedy of the historic disaster but even more so (and with a visceral punch to your emotions) it highlights the tragedy of racial discrimination. If you think you’ve read every variation of the Titanic story, Luck of the Titanic delivers something wholly new. I can’t say this enough, this book is not to be missed.
Book: Luck of the Titanic
Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: May 4th, 2021
Age Range: 13 – adult
Penguin Teen kindly sent me a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion, rating, or the content of my review.