All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship by Kathryn Miles (Simon & Schuster, $16.00, 256 pages)
All Standing, Kathryn Miles’ third book (Superstorm, Adventures with Air), tells the story of the Jeanie Johnston, an Irish famine ship that completed 11 passages across the Atlantic without a single passenger death. This is remarkable considering that 100,000 lives were lost on the voyages of five comparable “coffin ships.”
This factually-based account is brought to life as the story of Nicholas Reilly, a baby born on the ship’s maiden voyage. This may sound like a James Michener novel, but it is far from it; far from it in that the story concludes after 226 pages. A Michener novel would be at least three times that length. Also, Michener would have loaded up the telling with numerous characters, while Miles settles for comparative simplicity.
The writer’s brevity is something to be appreciated. Her Hemingway-style sentences highlight the harsh reality of these people – they faced brutal life and death choices. (That’s a matter that needs little embellishment.) People were dying, they were desperate to salvage some semblance of a life, and many elected to take their chances on a dangerous – often fatal, voyage across a vast expanse of ocean.
The writer is meticulous about citing sources to support the facts covered in the book. She writes about the famine itself, the political decision-makers of the day, the shipping industry, the crew of the ship, and what the ocean journey was like.
All Standing is enjoyable and well written, although I suspect that the book would have been stronger if Miles had given some additional attention to the people of the time; she has sacrificed some human emotion for factual accuracy. Still, All Standing rewards the reader with a fascinating true tale of human sacrifice, courage and survival.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Well researched and engagingly written, Kathryn Miles’ All Standing is full of compelling characters – including the Jeanie Johnston herself. The ship becomes a beacon of hope….” Ginger Strand, author of Killer on the Road and Inventing Niagra.
Dave Moyer is an educator based in the Mid-West, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.