The publication of Frieda Wishinsky’s moving and inventive novel about a 12-year-old Canadian girl who sails from New York on the RMS Lusitania has been timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of a German U-boat’s torpedoing of the British ocean liner in May 1915. Though it seems doubtful this centenary will be as lavishly commemorated as that of the Lusitania’s more famous cousin, the RMS Titanic (the death toll of which was slightly lower), the two tales nevertheless share the same tragic elements: hubris and poor planning.
Despite the war raging in Europe, young Avis Dolphin – still reeling from the recent death of her father – is sent to live with her grandparents in England. Avis is anxious about her future, and about reports in the newspaper the morning of her departure, warning of U-boats lurking off the British coast. A smaller yet equally ominous portent: the ship’s loyal cat is suddenly nowhere to be found.
Avis is chaperoned by Hilda and Sarah, two nurses who quickly lose interest in their charge, preferring instead to flirt with the young men on board. Happy to be free, especially from bossy Hilda, Avis soon befriends Professor Ian Holbourn, a lecturer and explorer who beguiles her with tales of Foula, the remote Scottish island he owns. His stories are brought to life through Willow Dawson’s fantastical black-and-white panels, which are interspersed throughout the main narrative.
Anxiety escalates as the Lusitania draws closer to its destination. No spoiler alerts required here: after a gripping description of the mere 18 minutes it takes for the ship to reach its watery grave, all that’s left to wonder is who among Avis’s fellow passengers managed to survive.
Though Wishinsky occasionally overdoes it in the foreshadowing department, most tweens will find in Avis Dolphin a vivid and relatable account of a not-so-distant tragedy. A handy author’s note provides historical background and explains, astonishingly, that Wishinsky’s protagonist is based on a real Lusitania passenger of the same name.