In Many a Midnight Ship, Bourrie talks about shipwrecks and disasters on the lakes. He starts out with a bang, literally, as he describes a naval battle that took place on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. He then moves on to talk about November storms, especially a hurricane that took out 12 ships and nearly 300 sailors in 1913. That chapter was absolutely fascinating, and I expected to really enjoy this book.
However Bourrie appears to have packed his best material into the front of the book. What follows is a series of stories of the Great Lakes, some of them about shipwrecks, and others not. For instance, there is a chapter devoted to the history of the US naval ship Michigan, which never wrecked. However there was an interesting story to tell about how some Confederate spies wanted to hijack it in order to use it to free the inmates at a prisoner of war camp, so Bourrie went with it. Nevertheless, the Michigan didn't wreck. The author has written two previous books on the subject, so I wonder if he might have been stretching to find new material he hadn't already used. He also included a long section on a ship that had been used to house prisoners in Australia, which had been removed from service and was being dismantled in Cleveland when someone set it on fire. That really isn't a shipwreck, either. And a description of an overloaded pleasure boat that rolled over while still at the dock on the Chicago River. Which, while fairly interesting, also should not be classified as a Great Lakes shipwreck.
Bourrie is a journalist, and it shows in his writing. Every chapter opens with a hook, and some of them are pretty silly. For instance:
Jonah survived his trip in a whale, but, for more than 800 passengers on the excursion ship Eastland, the tickets to the "big event" advertised for July 24, 1915--an excursion out of the hot city of Chicago to the dune-lined beaches of Michigan City, Indiana--was an invitation to die.An invitation to die? Really? Or how about this one:
Politics can kill. The most terrible disaster that ever occurred on the open water of the Great Lakes was the loss, with more than 400 passengers, of the steamer Lady Elgin on September 8, 1860. It happened largely because a politician insulted hundreds of loyal soldiers just before the outbreak of the Civil War.I've got to call bullshit on that one. The political aspect of the story explains why that particular group of passengers were traveling on Lake Michigan that night, but really, a political insult did not cause the disaster. Those people died because they were rammed by another ship in the middle of the night, not because they were mad at the governor.
Overall I found Many a Midnight Ship a little puzzling, sometimes a little silly, and sometimes interesting. I realize that in shipwrecks where no one survives we often don't know what happened or why (or where, in some cases) they sank. But some of the material included seemed surprisingly far off topic. Because it's not written in chronological or geographical or any other order that would make sense to me, the stories seemed disconnected as they jumped around through time and space, and the work felt like a series of articles strung together rather than like a book.