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Review of The Dressmaker and Interview With Kate Alcott

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Since first viewing James Cameron's Titanic, 15 years ago, I've been fascinated by the history surrounding the tragedy and the passengers aboard the "unsinkable" ship.

April 15, 2012, marks the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. One hundred years have passed since that fateful day, when the bow of the ship brushed an iceberg in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean and became legend.

Captain E.J. Smith and crew were actually trying to avoid hitting the iceberg altogether, but instead it pierced the hull along the rivet line, causing catastrophic damage. The hull was ripped open, forcing water into five compartments, and eventually tipped forward into the ocean.

Two-and-half hours later, Titanic sunk. Of the 2,223 on board, 1,503 passengers and crew perished. There were only 20 lifeboats. The majority of survivors were first class passengers, women and children.

The Titanic's final resting place lies 12,500 feet below the ocean. Approximately 5,000 priceless artifacts have been recovered from the wreck, which have been preserved and put on display in exhibits throughout the world.

2012-02-25-TheDressmakerbyKateAlcott.jpgThe legacy of the Titanic and its fated passengers has spurred countless fiction and non-fiction books, films, documentaries, and museums devoted to the White Star Liner, including a new historical novel, The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott.

The story is about a young maid, Tess Collins, who wants to be a dressmaker. Having heard about the Titanic's upcoming voyage to America, Tess takes this as a sign to better her life. But first, Tess needs to figure out a way to get on the vessel. On the docks, she accidentally meets Lady "Lucile" Duff Gordon, a famous British fashion designer who is traveling on the Titanic to New York. Overhearing a conversation between Duff Gordon and her sister, novelist Elinor Glyn, about needing a maid, Tess approaches the couturier with an offer. But what Tess, of course, doesn't realize when she takes the position, is that she will become embroiled in the tragedy and aftermath... and her life will never be the same.

What drew her to writing about the Titanic, Alcott explains:

"I've been fascinated by the Titanic story for a long time, and knew the 100th anniversary of the sinking was rapidly approaching. The sinking itself has been well covered, and I knew I didn't want to dwell on that. But very little attention has been paid to the aftermath. I felt drawn to that, and set out to trace the reverberations on the lives of the survivors."

While reading The Dressmaker, I felt as if I were actually living and breathing the events before, during and after the tragedy, especially when the ship hits the iceberg. It's a very emotional scene -- one you know is coming, but hope-against-hope it doesn't. The novel is filled with the atmosphere, clothes, and historical figures of the times, including the Astors, "The Unsinkable" Molly Brown, and J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star's Managing Director, who cowardly boarded a lifeboat before others.

Of her extensive research on the novel, Alcott says:

"I tried to immerse myself in the era. That meant reading books written then to soak up the flavor of the time -- the class distinctions, the political gossip, the cultural and social values. It meant not only reading old newspaper accounts of the Titanic sinking, but the transcripts of the testimony of crew and passengers at the U.S. Senate hearings."

She further explains:

"Reading what these people, so fresh from surviving such a raw and terrible event, had to say gave me some insight into how they coped with their feelings and their decisions. One hundred years fell away -- it was as if they were in the same room with me. I also read every non-fiction account I could find about the Titanic. There was no dearth of material. In fact, I had to protect against losing myself in various fascinating byways that would have weakened my story."

The novel primarily focuses on the Titanic Disaster Hearings chaired by U.S. Senator William A. Smith of Michigan. Smith who conducted the hearings, initially at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, was adamant about what happened on April 15th. The hearings were eventually moved to Washington, D.C. and a total of 82 witnesses recalled their knowledge of the event and the aftermath.

Aside from real-life figures, The Dressmaker also features some intriguing fictional characters -- from Tess, who is charming and doesn't exactly know how to fit into her new high society world, and her two suitors (yes, there's romance in the novel) to an intrepid New York Times reporter, Pinky Wade.

Alcott's favorite character to write was Wade, of which she says:

"Pinky Wade pretty much bounced out of my head whole and onto the computer screen. I am very fond of her. I built her in part on the life and grit of Nellie Bly, whom -- as a former newspaper reporter myself -- I much admire. So there is some of me in her as well."

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's maiden voyage, the 1997 feature film, Titanic, will be released in 3D. Oscar and Emmy-winner, Julian Fellows (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) also bit by the Titanic bug, is producing a four-part mini-series for television. The Port of Cork, the Titanic's last port of call, will host a program of events to commemorate the ship and its passengers. And Guernsey's Auctioneers & Brokers will auction off more than 5,000 artifacts, including a section of the hull to one lucky buyer, who agrees to preserve the items and put them on occasional public display.

As for her novel, Alcott, relays, this:

"The one thing I would like readers to take away with them after reading The Dressmaker is how difficult it can be in a crisis to make split-second life-changing decisions -- and then to live with those choices the rest of your life. The survivors of the Titanic sinking suffered greatly, and -- as is usually the case in real life -- there are multiple and contradictory truths about who they were and what they did."

Alcott is a pseudonym of author and journalist, Patricia O'Brien, who has six novels and three non-fiction books to her credit.

The Dressmaker was released February 21. Pick up a copy and enjoy!