Ghosts of the Titanic, Charles Pellegrino

Avon, 2000, 339 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-72472-3

Now that the TITANIC movie has come and gone on big screens, VHS and DVD, it seems as if everyone’s an expert on the subject, citing diagrams and expert advice on exactly how the Big Ship sank. In the wake of the film’s boffo success (biggest moneymaker ever, anyone?), shelves of books on the subject were ransacked by new catastrophe enthusiasts.

One of those books was Charles Pellegrino’s Her name, Titanic. Faithful readers of these reviews may remember that I’ve been a Pellegrino enthusiast for some time, hence this review. Ghosts of the Titanic is a sequel of sort to Her Name, Titanic, but don’t worry if, like me, you haven’t read the first volume; the sequel is mostly self-supporting.

Some knowledge of the Titanic disaster is essential, though, as Pellegrino wastes no time explaining the basics. (This being said, one of the book’s highlights is the illustrated timeline of events running from page 176 to 195.) In some ways, this is a post-TITANIC book, immediately accessible if you’ve seen the film. James Cameron even wrote the foreword.

And what Pellegrino says is really “what the movie left out”: An examination of the current state of the wreck, the likely composition of the iceberg, the fire that had been raging deep in the ship’s structure during the whole trip. Pellegrino tells us stories that couldn’t fit in the three-hour movie, such as the efforts to keep the electricity running and Colonel Gracie’s narrow escape.

Using new testimonies, computer models and scientific evidence (some of which he himself collected during his visits to the wreck), Pellegrino uncovers yet more details about the events of April 14, 1912. One of his most fascinating findings is the fate of the Grand Stairway: Contemporary examinations of the wreck have so far failed to find it—leading James Cameron to theorize that the massive wooden structure could have ripped free of the sinking wreck and floated to the surface. A finding, ironically enough, supported by his experiences while filming TITANIC, as the Stairway replica started to rip itself from the set once submerged.

This anecdote, like many others, shows Pellegrino’s knack for finding the most astonishing things in places we wouldn’t expect. Coincidentally or not, his misfortune for being in a weird place at a weird time also pops up with alarming frequency and spine-chilling effects. (Here he describes missing TWA flight 800, and being cured of a fatal disease in extremis by one of his friends. I’m still waiting to hear more details about the nuclear device “accidental energetic disassembly” he survived, briefly mentioned here once again.)

All throughout Ghosts of the Titanic, Pellegrino exhibits a heart-wrenching sensitivity that will put a lump in your throat. It’s not easy to publish a book on this subject without somehow coming across as an opportunistic fellow, but Pellegrino’s mourning feels genuine and the result is a book that never seems exploitative.

Pellegrino’s polymath familiarity with widely divergent fields of study also gives him a unique expertise to slip in and out of the strict subject of the book. Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is Chapter 5, when he examines “rusticles”, iron structures formed by the bacteria slowly eating the tons of metal in the wreck. Not only does he conclude that the Titanic will eventually disappear (there goes the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ghosts of the Grand Banks!), but he also describes how the rusticles structures are evolving internal circulation systems… from unicellular organisms! As the ultimate kicker, he suggests that new medical research stemming from the study of rusticles might eventually save more lives that were claimed by the Titanic tragedy.

In short, Ghosts of the Titanic is another success for Pellegrino, another savvy mix of science fact and good heart-felt writing. Give it a try if you’re interested in the author or the subject matter. If you don’t think you’ve had enough of that subject yet, Pellegrino promises us, in the epilogue, that Ghosts of the Titanic is the second volume in a trilogy he expects to complete in 2010-2012. Given what he managed to tell us this time around, I can’t wait.

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