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The Gravesavers

by Sheree Fitch

In Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, there is a monument to the victims and survivors of the SS Atlantic, a steamship that sank just off the coast in April 1873. The passengers were bound from Liverpool to New York, and of the 952 people aboard, more than 500 died, including virtually all the women and children. Prior to the Titanic, it was the biggest loss of life in a North Atlantic shipwreck.

Celebrated poet Sheree Fitch weaves this historical incident into her new young adult novel, The Gravesavers. She spins two narratives: the main one, set in contemporary Nova Scotia, is told in the first person by 13-year-old Cinnamon (Minn) Hotchkiss; the second is related by young John Hindley as he embarks with his family for the New World in 1873. We meet Minn first, a spirited girl with a sarcastic streak and a voice spicy with Maritime turns of phrase. From the book’s opening lines she bounds off the page. Her mother has just had another in a long series of miscarriages, and lapses into a deep depression. Though worried and increasingly angered by her mother’s neglect, Minn maintains a buoyant tone, an affecting mix of the poignant and comic. When Minn’s well-meaning English teacher calls her in to ask if there’s anything she’d like to talk about, the following conversation ensues:

“I was intrigued by the metaphors on your exam,” she continued….
“‘My mother is a bleached-out dishrag full of holes’? I wouldn’t read too much into it.”
“And the other one. The extended metaphor?” she said finally.
I frowned as if I couldn’t recall it.
“‘The heart has four chambers: isolation chamber, torture chamber, chamber of horrors and chamber of ghosts.’” She had it memorized?
“I was under pressure,” I said. “I just wrote the first thing that popped into my head.”
“I know. That’s why we’re talking.”

Minn is devastated when her parents pack her off to her crusty Nana’s for the summer. As she sets off for the Nova Scotia coast, Fitch kicks in her second narrative, and we’re taken back in time to the house of 12-year-old John Hindley, whose father has just secured passage for his family on the SS Atlantic. After Minn’s vital, peppery voice, John’s seems a little faint, and at times too modern: “You coming with us or what?” he demands of his older brother, Thomas. Thomas, for his part, goes jogging along the river after work, an activity that I’m not sure would have been part of a 19th-century labourer’s routine.

Fitch links her two plot strands when Minn finds a tiny human skull on the beach. It turns out Nana has quite a collection of bones herself, gathered from the eroded graves of the victims of the SS Atlantic, which met its doom just off the coast. Cutting between past and present, Fitch builds suspense as Minn reads up on the shipwreck and the fate of its passengers, and John Hindley crosses the Atlantic, anticipating his new life and experiencing his first romantic stirrings. The reader’s sense of dread increases as we wonder who will survive the impending wreck.

Fitch doesn’t let Minn become just a passive witness of this past-tense drama. Minn has a rich and busy life of her own. She is training for a track meet and jogs every day (an excellent device for getting her out and about to explore); she snoops around a mansion rumoured to be the home of a reclusive rock star; she tries to make sense of what’s happening to her own family; and she locks horns with her old goat of a granny – who turns out, predictably enough, to be wonderful. (I long for a crusty granny who turns out to be even more appalling than anticipated.) Minn also meets Max, a 15-year-old boy who, we increasingly suspect, may be a ghost. But whose? Intercut with all this is John Hindley’s account of the actual shipwreck.

Indeed, so many subplots are percolating that Fitch lets her main plot sag a bit in the book’s middle. Minn’s investigations into the shipwreck seem a bit aimless until, inspired by her Nana, she decides to start a petition to restore the gravesite and make a proper memorial. Eventually she hatches a plan: she will plant a dummy on the rocks of Elbow Island (where the survivors came ashore) and call the Coast Guard, who will find a sign beside the dummy that says “Save the Graves.” Much media attention will ensue. Max agrees to help row Minn over to the island. Here, alone at night, Minn faces the ghosts of the past, as well as a guilty secret that she’s harboured within her about her mother’s latest miscarriage.

The Gravesavers is an ambitious, multi-layered novel, with an unusual set of ingredients: part ghost story, historical fiction, and contemporary coming-of-age novel. Fitch’s prose is very strong, enlivened by a poet’s acute choice of words. Only rarely does the writing falter, as in the shipwreck sequence, when an overuse of sentence fragments and description clutters what should have been utterly riveting. (James Heneghan’s shipwreck scene in Wish Me Luck worked better, with its pared-down language, denuded of emotional freight.)

Fitch impressively juggles a lot of balls in this novel, but perhaps a few too many, and in all the blur, we’re denied a single clear climax and resolution. The numerous storylines create an ending that feels very protracted. Fitch introduces an epistolary section between Minn and Nana, and while it’s a speedy way of delivering exposition, the structural shift of gears feels like a bit of a cheat. With all the ghosts of the past and present, the reconciliations and absolutions and leave-takings, there are so many threads getting tied up that as a reader I felt as trussed up as Gulliver. Fitch’s heroine is such a triumph that I couldn’t help wishing for more of Minn’s bracing Maritime verve to temper the slightly overwrought strains of the Titanic soundtrack that swelled in the novel’s final pages.