Along with the Harry Potter books, one of the children’s literature phenomenons I am sad to have missed out on as a child is the Dear Canada series.* For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series (although I don’t know if it’s possible NOT to know this series) the concept is this: a series of stand alone diaries from the perspective of a girl living through notable moments in Canadian history. Simple but genius.
I had great plans to read through the entire Dear Canada series this summer on my brief hiatus, but I ended up being busier than expected and it wasn’t quite the marathon I had hoped. I am happy to have read the most recent addition to the series. That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton is Sarah Ellis‘ third diary in the Dear Canada series and it is one of my favourites. The Titanic is done time and time again and with good reason: children are fascinated by this tragedy even today. But you have not read the Titanic like this before. Ellis stays away from the drama and adventure and sticks to an unusual topic for children’s literature: survivor’s guilt.
Dorothy has been asked to keep a journal by her teacher, an astute woman who promises not to read it, but suggests that Dorothy try and write about her experience aboard the most famous of ships. Dorothy is reluctant at first, instead filling the pages with stories of her life in England at her grandparents house and plays she has written featuring a “Canadian Girl” to illustrate what life was like just before ‘that fatal night’ of the title. But slowly Dorothy starts to reveal what happened on her trip. She talks about the hated Miss Pugh, her strict companion, kind Beryl, who worked aboard the ship, and trouble-making Marjorie. I had a lump in my throat as Dorothy eventually tells the events of that night and the fates of Miss Pugh, Beryl, Marjorie, and others become clear.
Despite issues of guilt and post-traumatic stress, That Fatal Night is not a heavy or traumatic read. Dorothy has a lot of pluck and Ellis has done an excellent job of recreating the diary of a girl who never intended her words to be read. She is honest about the people she likes and doesn’t like and never minces words, the effect of which is laugh out loud funny. Dorothy has a keen eye for detail and brings the Titanic to life for the reader, mentioning how the photographs in the paper cannot capture “the smells.” The tone reminded me a little bit of a Budge Wilson short story called “My War” about a girl living in Halifax during WWII who just can’t get enough of the excitement and the drama until tragedy comes into her life and she has a change of heart. Both this story and Ellis’ novel capture the horrors and loneliness of trauma in addition to the burden of other people’s reactions to your trauma.
Dear Canada fans and lovers of Titanic literature will welcome this addition to the canon. As always in this series, a historical note is included in the back for fact lovers. All in all, a very welcome addition to the Dear Canada family and one of Sarah Ellis’ best novels.
Dear Canada: That Fatal Night: The Titanic Diary of Dorothy Wilton is available now from Scholastic Canada.
*Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy both Harry Potter and Dear Canada as an adult. But I can’t help but wonder how much more magical/enlightened my life would have been had I been able to access these series as a child.