Lifeboat

Lifeboat

by John R. Stilgoe
     
 

The fire extinguisher; the airline safety card; the lifeboat. Until September 11, 2001, most Americans paid homage to these appurtenances of disaster with a sidelong glance, if at all. But John Stilgoe has been thinking about lifeboats ever since he listened with his father as the kitchen radio announced that the liner Lakonia had caught fire and sunk in the

Overview

The fire extinguisher; the airline safety card; the lifeboat. Until September 11, 2001, most Americans paid homage to these appurtenances of disaster with a sidelong glance, if at all. But John Stilgoe has been thinking about lifeboats ever since he listened with his father as the kitchen radio announced that the liner Lakonia had caught fire and sunk in the Atlantic. It was Christmas 1963, and airline travel and Cold War paranoia had made the images of an ocean liner’s distress—the air force dropping supplies in the dark, a freighter collecting survivors from lifeboats—seem like echoes of a bygone era.

But Stilgoe, already a passionate reader and an aficionado of small-boat navigation, began to delve into accounts of other disasters at sea. What he found was a trunkful of hair-raising stories—of shipwreck, salvation, seamanship brilliant and inept, noble sacrifice, insanity, cannibalism, courage and cravenness, even scandal. In nonfiction accounts and in the works of Conrad, Melville, and Tomlinson, fear and survival animate and degrade human nature, in the microcosm of an open boat as in society at large.

How lifeboats are made, rigged, and captained, Stilgoe discovered, and how accounts of their use or misuse are put down, says much about the culture and circumstances from which they are launched. In the hands of a skillful historian such as Stilgoe, the lifeboat becomes a symbol of human optimism, of engineering ingenuity, of bureaucratic regulation, of fear and frailty. Woven through Lifeboat are good old-fashioned yarns, thrilling tales of adventure that will quicken the pulse of readers who have enjoyed the novels of Patrick O’Brian, Crabwalk by Günter Grass, or works of nonfiction such as The Perfect Storm and In the Heart of the Sea. But Stilgoe, whose other works have plumbed suburban culture, locomotives, and the shore, is ultimately after bigger fish. Through the humble, much-ignored lifeboat, its design and navigation and the stories of its ultimate purpose, he has found a peculiar lens on roughly the past two centuries of human history, particularly the war-tossed, technology-driven history of man and the sea.

Editorial Reviews

John CaseyNational Book Award–winning
As with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Charles Corn’s Scents of Eden, in the right hands a thing, trade, or practice traced through a century or two provides another window on history, small but very clear, and from an angle just enough to one side to bring other events into a new perspective. The lifeboat is the MacGuffin for Stilgoe’s plot, and it brings a great deal into view.... Lifeboat is a majestic, prodigious, mighty book.

John Casey National Book Award-winning

As with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Charles Corn’s Scents of Eden, in the right hands a thing, trade, or practice traced through a century or two provides another window on history, small but very clear, and from an angle just enough to one side to bring other events into a new perspective. The lifeboat is the MacGuffin for Stilgoe’s plot, and it brings a great deal into view.... Lifeboat is a majestic, prodigious, mighty book.

Linda Greenlaw
With a voice that is knowing and nautical, John Stilgoe leads readers along a salt-encrusted time line of the evolution of lifeboats. Lifeboat is a fascinating and meticulously researched work to be enjoyed by seafarers and history buffs alike.

Publishers Weekly
"Women and children first" is the phrase that enters many readers' minds when thinking of lifeboats and sinking ships. It is also one of the first myths author Stilgoe handily punctures in this sobering, nitpicky history. Falling somewhere between a social history of a ubiquitous yet often misunderstood piece of equipment and a rambling, rumination on a personal obsession, the book takes on many sacred cows and societal illusions. Stilgoe, a Harvard history professor and author of Alongshore and other books, combs through centuries' worth of lifeboat accounts and comes up with a relatively low number of examples of steadfast sailors trying to save their passengers (or of sailors ganging up against passengers when the going gets tough) and each other. He saves his admiration for sailboat-trained seamen-already a disappearing species by the early 20th century-who, time after time, steered their tiny boats of starving, sunburned survivors hundreds or thousands of miles across empty ocean to safety. Stilgoe also rhapsodizes over the lifeboat itself, a rugged contraption standardized by the British Board of Trade in the 19th century, which consistently proved its ability to stay afloat in gales that swamped larger vessels. Titanic looms large here, naturally, and Stilgoe has a good time deflating some of the shipwreck tales that the film propagated. B&w illus. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780813926933
Publisher:
University of Virginia Press
Publication date:
08/29/2007
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

"As with Mark Kurlansky's Cod or Charles Corn's Scents of Eden, in the right hands a thing, trade, or practice traced through a century or two provides another window on history, small but very clear, and from an angle just enough to one side to bring other events into a new perspective. The lifeboat is the MacGuffin for Stilgoe's plot, and it brings a great deal into view.... Lifeboat is a majestic, prodigious, mighty book." -- John CaseyNational Book Award--winning, author of Spartina

Linda Greenlaw

With a voice that is knowing and nautical, John Stilgoe leads readers along a salt-encrusted time line of the evolution of lifeboats. Lifeboat is a fascinating and meticulously researched work to be enjoyed by seafarers and history buffs alike.

John CaseyNational Book Award–winning

As with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Charles Corn’s Scents of Eden, in the right hands a thing, trade, or practice traced through a century or two provides another window on history, small but very clear, and from an angle just enough to one side to bring other events into a new perspective. The lifeboat is the MacGuffin for Stilgoe’s plot, and it brings a great deal into view.... Lifeboat is a majestic, prodigious, mighty book.

Meet the Author

John Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University, is the author of numerous books, including Borderland, Metropolitan Corridor, and most recently, Outside Lies Magic and Alongshore. He lives on the coast of Massachusetts, where he sails a ship's lifeboat from Newfoundland, built in 1935.

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