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
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 Gunter 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
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