A funny thing happens on the way to writing a novel: you get sidetracked. Research is the culprit. You sign on with Newspaper Archive in order to get a feel for the times, read the store ads, the obits, the headlines – and first thing you know, you’re reading a July 24, 1915 Pennsylvania newspaper headline about a Chicago River disaster. About the top-heavy steamship Eastland with her high decks, a steamer that ran in Lake Michigan from Chicago to South Haven, Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and Michigan City. About the 472 women who died. About the 290 children. About the 82 men. The outing was a company picnic; the women were largely young, single and employed by the Western Electric Hawthorne plant. Eight hundred and forty-four deaths all told, when the Eastland capsized twenty feet from shore and twenty feet underwater.
You “google” for more information and find an article by Paul Stiglic, The Tragic Disaster of the Steamship Eastland. You discover the Eastland was salvaged, refloated, acquired by the U.S. Government in 1917, refitted for better stabilization, renamed the Willmette, and never permitted to carry navel personnel in excess of 375. You discover she was cut up for scrap in 1947, the same year you were born.
The novel you are writing is set between California, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey. The route your characters follow never once ventures into Illinois, the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric, or Lake Michigan. Yet, you are haunted by these 472 women, mostly young, who died in 1915. The 290 children. The 82 men. The prospects of a picnic at Michigan City – all those baskets holding fried chicken and bread, checkered tablecloths to spread over tables or lawns in a park where most had possibly never set foot. Had they ever boarded a steamship before? How giddy they must have felt! How lovely they must’ve been.
You read in the Stiglic article that “. . . the casualty rate to those passengers on the port side was very high, especially those who were below deck. To make matters worse, the crew were urging passengers to go below just before the disaster in hopes of correcting the list.”
You consider this – how we follow the urgings and demands of authority figures; how Irene, your title character, climbed into a cannon three times a day to be shot out over the heads of a paying crowd to splash into the Atlantic Ocean; how a contract she’d signed couldn’t be broken; how a judge court-ordered her continued appearance. Not quite the same as packing some chicken and bread in a basket for a pleasurable outing. No. But going below decks at the urging of those in command, taking those steps down and down as the Eastland began her roll toward capsizing must have taken some courage. You think it must’ve, even amidst the chaos of the moment. To move against what every fiber of being says, This can’t possibly be right. Yet we sometimes do those very things. We sometimes think our actions may help to save the day.
You decide that Irene of The True Life Adventures signed the initial contract, climbed into Coney Island’s (fictional) Poseidon Park cannon for three acts a day – to help save the day. It was 1930. The Great Depression. You did what was required to keep a roof over your mother’s, your sister’s, your brother’s, your nephews’ heads.
Yes. You’ve been side-tracked. You’ve added hundreds of past lives to haunt your imagination – these 82 men, these few hundred children, these 472 women – all roaming about, phantoms, keeping company with your Irene.
[To access the Paul Stiglic article on the Steamship Eastland visit http://www.acbs.org/rudder/oldrudder/Rudder/eastland.htm]