Reviewed by Mike Poirier
Families are often the guardians of history. Who would have imagined that a new, amateur photo taken aboard Titanic on the day she sailed would grace the cover of a book? Julie Hedgepeth Williams, a journalism professor, has gone through her family tree and various archives to put together a unique biography on three Titanic survivors. Williams traces their very humble beginnings, their school days, their courtship and then their marriage.
The story really gets interesting when the couple travel to Siam, under contract, for work as missionaries. The climate was detrimental to Sylvia's health and after giving birth to a healthy baby boy, Alden, she apparently was still unwell. Their plan to leave Siam is complicated with investigations by the Presbyterian Board of Missions and doctors visits, but eventually they are able to make travel plans to return to the US. One of their trunks held $100 in gold that they had managed to save during their time in Siam. The possibility of having to return all the money the missionaries paid them, including travel funds would worry them throughout their journey home and for some time after. The long journey home includes a stop in Italy, and while there, they catch a glimpse of the Carpathia ready to sail to New York. Little did they know that this ship would rescue them from disaster at sea.
Their time aboard the Titanic is well-documented. The newly published deck shot was taken by a friend who came aboard to see them off. They are shown posing by the aft boat deck rail with other ships funnels in the background. There's a possibility that in some old album, there could be similar shots from aboard Titanic that day photographed by friends or relatives of passengers and crew.
If I could fault the author for one thing, it would be that she didn't use enough actual quotes from Albert and Sylvia regarding their time on the Titanic. We learn that Albert coaxed the crew to let him down into the stokehold and that he took a number of pictures. It would have been more interesting if 'he' told the story in that instance, and in several other areas of the Titanic chapter rather than the author.
Albert Caldwell was known as one of only fourteen men to survive from the second class passengers. That in itself, is an interesting story. Researchers just assumed he was in the right place at the right time. Although there's some truth to that, we learn from Williams’ research that Sylvia Caldwell was very ill and didn't have the strength to hold her baby. Williams delves into their escape from the ship and although there remain some unanswered questions, the author chooses not to just assume, but explains to the reader the various possibilities which is where she shows her skills as a journalism professor.
Sylvia's thoughts about her days aboard the Carpathia are also interesting as she details the kindness of her saviors and the sadness of her fellow survivors. Although, the Titanic is not a closed chapter in their lives, we follow them through their careers, the end of the marriage, their remarriages and their deaths.
The pictures in the book are well-chosen, right down to Albert in an antique car with Debbie Reynolds, promoting, 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown'. I've read the book twice and this is one of the best books one could purchase for the upcoming anniversary.
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: NewSouth Books (January 1, 2012)