On Sept. 14, 1882, the steamship SS Asia sank in a storm on Georgian Bay. One hundred and forty passengers and crew died; the only survivors were two teenagers from Ontario, who spent three days in a lifeboat before being rescued. In her debut novel, Toronto author Andrea Curtis fictionalizes this story for an adolescent audience.
Big Water is a gripping adventure in which the two protagonists – here named Christina and Daniel – share a lifeboat with a group of adult men who, one by one, die before being rescued. Using plain, precise language, Curtis manages to convey the horror of the experience in a believable way, but without being overly morbid.
Curtis has long been fascinated with shipwrecks. One of her best-known books of non-fiction, Into the Blue: Family Secrets and the Search for a Great Lakes Shipwreck, is about her great-grandfather, a steamboat captain whose ship and its 30 passengers were lost in a storm in 1906, also on Georgian Bay.
In Big Water, the two main characters are both given intriguing backstories. Christina, 17, has run away from home, unable to cope with the recent death of her twin brother. Daniel, whose exact age is not given, is being raised by an uncle determined to involve the reluctant boy in criminal activities. During the three days on a lifeboat, they discuss their problems, reset priorities, and entertain a possible romance.
Christina is portrayed as the tougher of the two. She saves Daniel’s life when he falls out of the lifeboat, nurses his injuries, helps get them to an island, and generally ensures they do not give in to despair.
News accounts at the time tended to focus on the boy’s story rather than that of the girl. Curtis, by contrast, gives the heroine her due. –Paul Gessell