There were lots of old books in our house when we first arrived. Some were too dampish and mildewed to keep. Those are now slowly returning to the earth from whence they came, in a place only I know about. Others are valuable resource books, like The World of the White-tailed Deer, by Leonard Lee Rue III (Philadelphia, 1962); A Field Guide to Wildflowers, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny (Boston, 1968); The Bottle Collector, by Azor Vienneau (Halifax, 1969), which sounds like a title for a novel, and has an entire section on Nova Scotian bottles; and A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane (New York, 1965). In the realm of fiction we have A Century of Sea Stories, edited by Rafael Sabatini (London, n.d.), an anthology including excerpts from some of the classics as well as stories and writers I'd never heard of. It's a fine haul that can turn a quiet night in front of the fire into an exciting adventure, or at least into a greater knowledge of bottles.
Then there's the disaster-at-sea genre. Our house came complete with a copy of The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland: An Authentic Account of the Most Horrible Disaster in Canadian History, Constructed from the Real Facts Obtained from Those on Board Who Survived, And Other Great Sea Disasters, by Logan Marshall (n.p.,1914). Those Other Great Sea Disasters include an account of the S.S. Atlantic, which ran aground outside of Halifax on April Fool's Day, 1873, with enormous loss of life.
The story of Atlantic has been told again, by Greg Cochkanoff and Bob Chaulk, in SS Atlantic: The White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea (Goose Lane, Fredericton, NB, 2009). I am not a big fan of disaster-at-sea, but SS Atlantic has been nominated for various prizes this year, and Goose Lane is a very interesting publisher, so I sprang for it.
Or rather, I didn't spring for it. Instead, I used my now default method of acquiring books. If it wasn't already in the house when we came here, or if I didn't bring it with me, carting boxes and boxes of a much-winnowed-down collection across the harbour (and now they, too, belong to the house, forever, since as you may remember: lots of things come onto the island, but nothing ever goes off), then I borrowed it from the Western Counties Regional Library.
It's so much fun to borrow books from our library. I noodle around on line and read reviews. I write down the title and author of whatever looks interesting. As a Landed Immigrant, always eager to learn more about my chosen country, I go especially for Canadian literature and non-fiction. Books that hint they may allow me a glimpse into the shy and elusive Canadian soul. Then I log onto my library account and reserve the books. If it's a hot new book, like Michael Crummey's Galore, then I'll be on a waiting list for a while. It took a long time to get Too Much Happiness, and The Bishop's Man, and Under This Unbroken Sky, and The Winter Vault, which were all nominated for recent prizes, even though Alice Munro turned down her nomination. Only one of those books, by the way, contained very much happiness.
On the other hand, Lisa Moore's startlingly fabulous February, joyously heartbreaking or heartbreakingly joyous, and David Adams Richards' brilliant and infuriating Mercy Among the Children, came right away. Anyway, the waits, when they come, are worth it, and it's not like I'm just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. I do have The Bottle Collector after all.
If the Western Regional Library doesn't have the book I want, I can order it from another regional library in Nova Scotia, or from the Halifax Public Library, or from Acadia University in Wolfeville. Eventually, from across the Province, the books of my desire arrive at the McKay Memorial Library in Shelburne. They sit on a shelf with my name attached until Greg stops by and pick them up, along with whatever he has ordered for himself. I do think the library is one of the world's best inventions. And the internet, too. A fabulous combination for someone whose reading habit can get very expensive, and lives on an island. Or anywhere, for that matter.
So I got SS Atlantic from the library. And I'm glad I did. It's a gripping, detailed account of a colossal failure made up of carelessness and negligence, poor communication among the officers, and a deadly combination of ignorance and overconfidence, with the inevitable result of disorientation. Not good when you are steaming full throttle at a huge rock. Which most of us find ourselves doing at some point in our lives, I guess, so it's a cautionary tale. I came away with fresh appreciation for the dangers of these North Atlantic waters and this Nova Scotia coast, and for the wondrous lighthouses along its shore.