Capsized!: The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster by Patricia Sutton (Chicago Review Press, July 2018) is a children’s non-fiction book about a largely forgotten disaster–the capsizing of a passenger-laden steamboat in the Chicago River in 1915. It’s a fairly slim book with a fair number of contemporary photos of both the people and the actual events of the capsizing. Sutton’s author’s note indicates that she has been fascinated with the story for a long time and I’d say this book shows how much research she has done to uncover eyewitness accounts and reports.
I thought that I picked Capsized! up because I had challenged myself a while back to try to read (or at least attempt) the middle grade books from the Publisher’s Weekly best books of summer 2018 list. But it turns out, it’s not on that list! It did receive a Kirkus star, so I may have seen the review there and thought it looked interesting.
The SS Eastland story is one I think I was vaguely familiar with but certainly didn’t know much about. And oh wow, this is a tough one! The details of the disaster are pretty much horrifying. It’s one of those examples of how a bunch of small mistakes can build up to a situation that goes really, really awry. So the first part of the book is full of a sense of impending doom since you know what’s about to happen and all the people in the book are blithely getting ready for a company picnic.
Part of what’s so devastating is the fact that most of the victims were from a very close-knit community who lived in neighborhoods around the Western Electric factory where they or their families worked. Towards the end of the book, Sutton mentions that on one street there was not a single house without mourning ribbons on the door. The narrative follows a couple of families, giving a sense of how they fit into the overall picture of Western Electric employees and families, through their part in the disaster, and wrapping up with what happened to them later. The inclusion of photographs from the capsizing and the aftermath strengthen the power of the text nicely.
The book does an excellent job of painting the background picture: the history of the SS Eastland, the immigrant communities that many of the workers were part of, the pressure from the management of Western Electric to attend the picnic. That being said, I felt that the bulk of the book focused on the lead-up to the accident, and I wished that a little more time had been spent on what happened afterwards, although since Sutton notes that war news replaced the reporting on the capsizing almost immediately this may be partly an issue with the historical record.
Overall, this is a powerful and devastating read that I would recommend for grades 5+. Hand this one to anyone who loves reading about forgotten history or disasters, especially the kids who are into the Titanic and ready to branch out.
Previously, on By Singing Light:
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow (2013)
Libraries and Life Preservers (2014)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (2015)
Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (2016)