Review of Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship”

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship”

by Deborah Heiligman

Intermediate, Middle School    Godwin/Holt    291 pp.    g

10/19    978-1-62779-554-8    $19.99

Nonfiction maestro Heiligman (Charles and Emma, rev. 1/09; Vincent and Theo, rev. 3/17) here tells a riveting wartime survival story. As World War II brings intense bombing to England, some parents choose to send their children across the ocean, ostensibly to greater safety, but all ships crossing the Atlantic are at risk of attack by German submarines. On September 17, 1940, the unthinkable happens. The SS City of Benares—carrying two hundred passengers, half of them children—is torpedoed in the North Atlantic and begins to sink, leaving the pajama-clad passengers little time to scramble onto lifeboats in the dead of night. Heiligman navigates the chaos of those crucial minutes by skillfully juggling various points of view, heightening the narrative tension. As word of the disaster reaches the nearest ship, those in the water—in lifeboats, on rafts, clinging to debris—struggle to survive; many perish in the night from exposure to the cold temperature and stormy weather. Help eventually arrives, but in a gut-punch of a surprise twist, one lifeboat is left behind, extending the rescue drama by eight days and several more chapters. Heiligman builds and maintains suspense while remaining scrupulously faithful to the historical record, eschewing quotation marks, for example, for anything that’s not a primary-source document. Black-and-white photographs and illustrations are incorporated throughout; the front and back matter include an author’s note, a personnel list (“Shipmates”), a bibliography, source notes, and an index.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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