The full title of Deborah Heiligman’s latest work of narrative nonfiction–Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the “Children’s Ship”–has all the elements to attract readers. It promises adventure, a survival story, in a World War II setting with children as the protagonists–and it’s all true! The event was so traumatic, written documentation abounded, even if news reports were censored. For Heiligman, the subject would have been a meatball over the heart of the plate, just begging to be smashed out of the park.

But Deborah Heiligman has too much respect for her work to consider any project “easy.” Besides, the challenges were as manifest as the advantages. How to tell a story with a dozen and more protagonists? How to maintain the tension in a slow-moving disaster, one whose precipitating event is known the from the outset? Most troubling of all, how to handle the fact of death, the loss of so many innocent lives in a book for readers hardly equipped to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy?

While introducing the reader to her many characters, Heiligman attends to the details that bring alive the lost world of wartime Britain. Nine-year-old Jack Keeley had

seen the newsreels before the cartoons at the tuppenny rush, the children’s matinee movie on Saturdays. And he’d noticed the signs of war everywhere: lorries (trucks) with soldiers in the back, their guns pointed skyward, ready to fire on German planes; neighborhood playgrounds dug up and made into air raid shelters. There were also sandbag fortifications here and there, windows crisscrossed with tape to prevent flying glass during the bombing, and sixty-foot-long barrage balloons, raised to force enemy planes to fly around them.

Even later in the narrative, as the seven boys in Lifeboat 12 begin their grinding eight-day ordeal in the North Atlantic, Heiligman uses flashback to lend context and underscore her characters’ youth:

And back at home, before they’d left, they’d had the run of their neighborhoods, as all British kids did back then, playing freely in their yards or even the streets. On days without school, children would be out all day, with an apple and some cookies in their pockets, running about, riding bicycles if they had them, even on major roads. They’d bring their cricket bat and ball and play wherever they could against stumps or stoops, using their coats as wickets. They’d play running and chasing games, like  tag, touch, poison, crusts and crumbs, blind man’s buff, and leapfrog. They’d play with marbles and climb trees.

Heiligman continues for three more paragraph on how the children’s play changed with the Blitz. Bombed out buildings became places to explore. Dogfights overhead became more exciting than newsreels. While helping twenty-first century American children understand the world of wartime British children, Heiligman heightens the stakes of her characters yearning to return home.

Throughout the narrative, Heiligman works to give her a kid’s-eye view of events. She makes thorough use of the source material, much of it held at the Imperial War Museum, as well as of interviews she conducted with survivors or their descendants. She quotes abundantly from the source material and includes remembered words gained from interviews, written without quotation marks. As the children board their liner to Canada, Jack Keeley (again!) “was immediately bowled over by how large the ship was”–Heiligman’s words for his memory–“Years later, he’d realize it wasn’t as large as it looked to a nine-year-old boy. But at this moment, it seemed titanic.” The final descriptor will be a tantalizing touch for almost every one of her readers.

With the children on the ship, Heiligman shows them as kids, running about the deck, exploring the ship, playing games of their own and those devised by their minders. And, seated for meals in the sumptuous dining room, gaping in awe at the luxury around them. For these children, used to strapped family budgets and wartime rationing, the bounty they were served aboard the City of Benares‘s was truly awesome. Especially the ice cream. They scarfed it down with abandon. Then Heiligman brings us up short with a reminder of what awaited: “Those who survived would remember, even decades later, that the loss of all that ice cream felt like a terrible tragedy.”

Sentences such as this one are part of a concerted effort to foreshadow the coming catastrophe. Heiligman will not allow her reader lull herself into thinking this is a suspense story. No, she hammers home, the tragedy is known and understood. You must not be surprised. This is a story about the confluence of attitudes and actions and accidents that lead to good and bad outcomes, often with little rhyme or reason: “Later, after disaster struck, this pocket money would become a huge concern for the boys.” Or: “Before too long, this guilt would come to haunt her–and maybe even save her  life.” And again: “For some it would mean rescue. For others it would mean confusion that led to abandonment.”

Heiligman’s relies on her most skilled writing to convey the feel of experience. She wasn’t there, yet she works to get inside the documentary evidence and the firsthand accounts. Like a poet, she uses rhythm, repetition, and juxtaposition to help convey the reality behind mere sensory description.

In Lifeboat 12, to pass the time and keep up the children’s spirits, they played all the travel games in the repertoire. Including “I Spy”:

What did they spy?
Each other.
The other people on the boat.
Parts of the boat: sail, mast, tiller, handles, a jug of drinking water, tins of bully beef…. At sea there was–the sea. Waves, clouds, spray. A very few sea birds.
The bathroom bucket.
But there was not much to spy that nobody else could. It was too easy to guess.
There was a surplus of what they could not spy:
      • Other life boats from the Benares
      • Lifeboats from any other ship
      • fishing boats
      • cruise ships
      • oilers
      • destroyers
      • sailboats
      • yachts
      • rescuers
      • land
      • Mum
      • Dad
      • little brothers
      • all the people who weren’t in Lifeboat 12
There was so little to see and so much to long for. “I Spy,” it turned out, was no fun, no fun at all.

And how does Heiligman face the solemn duty of “killing off her characters”? A lifeboat is flipped as it is being lowered by the davits, dumping its passengers, grown and not, into storm-tossed waters. How to do justice to the enormity of the loss? Here’s how Heiligman does it:

Violet Grimmond, ten, and Connie, nine, plunged to their deaths. [No euphemism, the hard, stark word.]
And little Joyce Keeley, who had never stopped crying for her mother. [Imagine the excruciating terror of an already inconsolable child; feel the cruelty of it.]
Screams louder than the storm pierced the air. [The piercing shriek of death rising over the howls of an uncaring Nature.]
Ruby Grierson would never finish her film.
Margaret Zeal, the CORB doctor, gone, too. [Adults, their dreams and their talents, were lost, too.]
And Gussie Grimmond. Strong, quirky, strong-willed Gussie. Gone. [The abstraction is made concrete: the inherent value of each child, along with her potentiality…gone.]
Everyone in that lifeboat, gone. Just like that. [No longer part of the story.]

Heiligman is acutely conscious of this as she tells her story of heroes and those who toughed it out and those who just got lucky: the survivors. She also introduces characters who die–so many did–and, in most cases, she was able to tell of their final moments (somehow a consolation to the living, certainly a satisfaction to the reader). But, aware that the great bulk of the dead remain nameless in her narrative, she ends her tale with one who stands in for all those anonymous others.

Beryl Myatt was one of seventy-seven CORB children who died. Like so many of the others, we don’t know much about her. We don’t know about her days on the ship, or how she died. We cannot tell her whole story. But we know she was beloved.

Heiligman proceeds to give the few details we do know in the book’s final four-and-a-half paragraphs, giving the final word to the CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) representative in her letter to Beryl’s grieving parents: “You will have to think of the whole seas as little Beryl’s grave. She belongs to a very gallant company of people whose grave is the sea.”

Source: Heiligman, Deborah. Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the Children’s Ship. New York: Henry Holt, 2019.

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