The Lifeboat

Charlotte Rogan

Little, Brown and Company


Hannah stamped her foot against the floor of the prison van and cried. “What is this, a witch trial? Is the only way we can prove our innocence by drowning?” I replied that perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent...

                                     from  The Lifeboat     


Three weeks adrift in a metaphor

I first read Lord of the Flies when I was in seventh grade. When I read it several years later in high school, I was surprised that it was the same book. Instead of a simple boys adventure story, the novel had become something much deeper and darker, and layered with meanings.

I had this same sense when reading Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat; that it was a metaphor for humanity.

The story is set in 1914. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife have just been assassinated and the world is rapidly moving toward global war. But it could just as well be 2014, as the planet teeters toward ecological cataclysm.

Like many of us, the passengers on the ocean liner, Empress Alexandra, choose to remain oblivious to the disaster coming. “Imagine, all that fuss about one dead duke,” says Grace Winter, the 22-year old narrator. Newly wed, she is more concerned about how her husband’s mother will accept her.

Following a mysterious explosion, the ship sinks, and Grace joins an overcrowded lifeboat (It seems a requirement in survival literature that the lifeboat must be overcrowded).

Mr. Hardie, one of the ship’s crew, takes charge; he knows what needs to be done. He beats away the swimmers with an oar, since they would sink the boat. Civilization depends upon its Hardies (hard versus soft?) to do the ugly things that must be done and that most of us wouldn’t have the nerve to do. They leave a small child in the water, clinging to its dead mother.

Opposing Mr. Hardie is the formidable Mrs. Grant, “holding the higher moral ground,” who will come to challenge his authority. She would have saved the child; she would have probably tried to save the desperate swimmers who would then have capsized the lifeboat and all would have drowned. Grace is caught between the two of them.

Like most survival stories, the novel may be taken as an allegory for what happens when life is reduced to its basics. The news is not encouraging. It was three weeks before the survivors were rescued, and Grace, now on trial for murder, realizes that “The bare bones of our natures were showing…I couldn’t see that there was anything good or noble left once food and shelter were taken away.”

The story can be enjoyed (if that’s the right word) purely as a survival epic, or as a metaphor for humanity. There are the strong, the weak, the self-sacrificing, and the majority who just cling to their life(boat) each day.

The good news is that most are rescued; but they now must live with “survivor’s guilt”—the suspicion that one’s survival perhaps wasn’t worth the cost.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.