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The Dressmaker tells the story of a young Irish woman named Tess who gleefully boards the Titanic in the employ of a famous designer named Lucille on it's fateful voyage across the Atlantic. While the both survive the sinking, Tess becomes embroiled in the controversy surrounding the actions of the wealthy, like Lucille and her husband, on board the few lifeboats available. Based on the actual Senate hearings, Alcott explores the themes of loyalty, heroism, cowardice and selfishness in the face of disaster.
Thanks to James Carmeron – who has Walter Lord’s book A Night to Remember to thank in turn – there may not be a single person in the world who is not aware of the basic facts surrounding the sinking of the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic: she was not carrying enough lifeboats, not all of those lifeboats were filled to capacity, and only one of those went back to rescue people in danger of freezing or drowning. Of the 2224 passengers and crew, only about 700 survived and many of those were left impoverished, widowed and orphaned. In the case of some of the upper class survivors, they were ostracized by society, as the author investigates.
This is what makes Kate Alcott’s book different. As a Washington D.C. reporter, Alcott did her homework, and this is where her writing is strongest. She skims over the actual sinking of the ill-fated ship and ponders what happened next for those survivors? The chairman of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay, fashion designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon and Margaret “Molly” Brown are some of the upper class privileged who managed to survive. These real-life passengers are mixed with Alcott’s fictional characters, most of which are less believable, which seems almost disrespectable to those who perished; however, she plucks these characters from all classes, including steerage and crew who were least likely to survive the wreckage, the policy having been women and children first (and those on the upper decks, closest to the few available lifeboats). The dressmaker’s maid Tess, Jean and Jordan Darling, the sailor Jim and others may be less well-drawn, but we see the sinking and aftermath through all their eyes and stories. April 15th marks 100 years since the Titanic sank, and if they are not as developed as they could have been, it certainly gives the reader pause for thought and discussion for those who could have been their real-life counterparts.
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