Monday, May 20, 2013

The Sinking of the Eastland by Jay Bonansinga

The Sinking of the Eastland by Jay Bonansinga is aptly subtitled “America’s forgotten tragedy.” In 1915, as it sat in port on the Chicago River, the steamship Eastland turned on its side, killing 844 people. Despite a loss of life more than twice that of the Great Chicago Fire, this tragedy is not well known today. I grew up in a Chicago suburb and do not remember hearing about the Eastland.

Bonansinga’s book is not intended to be a summation of the facts surrounding the tragedy. Instead, he introduces us to some of the people who survived the capsizing and who worked behind the scenes. He endeavors to “create portraits” based on public records and the memories of descendants.
The people onboard the Eastland that day were employees of Western Electric and their families, out for a company picnic dressed in their finest. The heavy, layered fashions of the day for women contributed to the loss of life, as it was hard to stay afloat once the layers became soaked in the river.
The city ran out of caskets to hold the dead, who were lined up in rows in the armory building. (Today, the building houses Oprah Winfrey’s massive media production center.) Across Lake Michigan, an advance party of workers at the lakeside park where the picnic was to occur waited for crowds that never arrived. The young woman voted “prettiest girl” at the Hawthorne plant who was to serve as queen of the festivities lay dead in one of the sunken berths of the Eastland. On one bench at the Western Electric Hawthorne factory where twenty-two women had worked, only two survived.
I found the book engrossing. It is almost unbelievable that so many people could drown off the dock in the middle of the day. Some of the family stories are heartbreaking. The photos in the book are poignant and eerie.  But there are also uplifting passages of heroism and survival.
Bonansinga speculates as to why this incident is largely forgotten and wants his book to serve as a tribute to the victims. At the conclusion of the book’s epilogue, in which the author fills in facts about some of the key players in the years after the sinking, Bonansinga writes, “Their stories – as well as the stories of those who have passed away – live on. They must live on.”
If you enjoy nonfiction narratives about real life tragedies that help you stand in the shoes of the people who were there that day, I recommend The Sinking of the Eastland.

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