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Reviewed by:
  • The Lifeboatby Charlotte Rogan
  • Ryder W. Miller (bio)
The LifeboatCharlotte Rogan Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 304 pages, Reprint edition (January 8, 2013) $14.99

Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboatis an interesting oceanic story about an accident at sea, the grim time survivors spend aboard a lifeboat, and the legal aftermath for newlywed Grace Winters (Winters), 22, who loses her husband in the wreck. The most compelling element of the novel, aside from its tale of survival and mutiny on the sea, is the series of legal complications and issues which centers the book.

The Lifeboatalso bears almost the same title as a 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie for which John Steinbeck wrote the story treatment ( Lifeboat). Steinbeck was unhappy with the film and asked that his name to be removed from the credits, but ironically was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts (although Hitchcock also did bring in other writers to adapt and change the story for the big screen). Both Rogan’s novel and Steinbeck’s screenplay have produced memorable oceanic stories which, though rooted in history, tell universal stories. Sadly, the new book is more of a legal thriller than a successful statement of the human condition. Told mostly in flashbacks, Rogan's book is an effective story about personal development. Winters, who must fend for herself among strangers and the elements without her husband Henry, learns profound lessons about society, survival, and the law. This tale is more elaborate than Steinbeck’s screen treatment for the Hitchcock movie Lifeboat.

After a shipwreck caused by an explosion in 1914, Winters is cast on the sea among strangers on a lifeboat which has too many people aboard and weighs down heavily in the water. These people do not have sufficient provisions for a long period on the sea. Therefore, they need to get rid of some on the boat, and they find it is necessary to prevent some survivors of the wreck from getting into the boat. Winters is a survivor and adapts to her predicament, which results in her being included along with some of the crew mates who must face being put on trial for their actions aboard the ship. There is mutiny and murder among the crew who struggle to survive. They also fight among themselves to stay out of the water. The ocean is portrayed as a grim wilderness, and the characters must persevere. They do not find as much fish as they would like to eat, and it is not safe to drink sea water. Unlike the shipwreck survivors in the Hitchcock film, these survivors do not need an enemy combatant on the ship. [End Page 173]

The writing about the sea is not very spectacular, but Rogan makes it clear that the vacation for the crew is over, especially for Winters who is now without a spouse: “Now, however, I knew he was in the sea, lurking there, hand in hand with Hardie, rising up in these big waves and splashing down random pieces of himself in our boat” (253). The structure of the book detracts from a full appreciation of the story, leaving readers waiting for answers to major questions. The book, however, is compelling, as are the plot elements for which readers await resolution. Winters learns some practical, but debatable lessons from the experience: “I replied that … perhaps there was a more profound point to be made about innocence, that perhaps a person could not be both alive and innocent.” (237). While the court case is clearly presented, it is not resolved until close to the novel’s end. Winters emerges as a survivor of the harsh sea, the grim and sometimes dangerous crew mates, personal loss, and an intrusive legal system. While the book does become a page-turner, it does not update Steinbeck’s story. Also, it lacks the seriousness of Steinbeck’s work, which can be seen as a parable of the human condition. Nevertheless, it is a more contemporary treatment. [End Page 174]

Ryder W. Miller

Ryder W. Miller is the editor of From Narnia to a Space Odyssey, co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History, and author to...


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