Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant

By Christina Sanders

Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant

In 1866, the General Grant wrecked on the Auckland Islands on its way to England, from Melbourne. Eighteen months later, 11 (10?) survivors were rescued. Christina Sanders took the facts that were known about this wreck, including documented statements of the survivors, and wrote a thought experiment, imagining what had happened on board, during and after the wreck.

For a book where not a lot happens, a lot happens. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense. But this book mostly covers every day life. Except that it starts with a shipwreck and continues with a group of people struggling to survive.

The description of what happens the night of the wreck, who makes it and who doesn’t, and why – some bad luck, some bad choices, others through betrayal – is hauntingly real and tragic. You’re pulled into the scene, experiencing it with Mrs Jewell, and your heart is breaking alongside hers. That night, too few survive, with very little in the way of provisions to help keep them alive. The ship should never have been anywhere near the Auckland Islands, so the chance of anyone looking for them there is non-existent. And that is after the months it will take for anyone to notice that the ship has gone missing. What follows is a description of the desperate fight for survival, the hope and despair tied up with eking out an existence while also trying to aid their discovery for rescue, and flag down any passing ship, and the harrowing toll on the mind and body that such an experience takes. Some will band together to survive and others will be out for themselves. Some will be so pulled under by grief and/or guilt that they struggle to function beyond the daily fight for survival, or at all. Not all who made it ashore that fateful night will be alive when rescue finally comes.

Amongst this all is Mrs Jewell – the sole female survivor. How does a woman survive such conditions? This is a time when women could often be seen as bad luck, and were definitely seen as (and often believed themselves to be) a burden. Someone to be looked after rather than one who could pull their weight in the hard task of survival. It would have been easy for her to curl up and give in. But Mrs Jewell carried a secret. One that kept her alive. And one that almost killed her when she let it go.

This book is a book of fiction. An imagined account of what it might have been like for the survivors and what might have happened. But if someone told me that this book was the published diary of Mrs Jewell that she wrote after their rescue and was found after her death, I’d believe it. That is how well Christina Sanders spun her tale.

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