January 20, 2013

Author Q & A: Safety in numbers

Kathryn Miles' new book recalls the only so-called 'coffin ship' to keep every one of its passengers – refugees of the Irish potato famine – alive.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Kathryn Miles first heard the story of the Jeanie Johnston, a ship that ferried Irish immigrants to North America during the potato famine, about eight years ago, when she was visiting Ireland and came across a re-creation of the square-rigged ship.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Kathryn Miles

She learned about its history, including the fact that it was the only so-called "coffin ship" to keep all of its passengers alive.

"I kept saying somebody ought to write a book about this," Miles said. "And nobody did. So finally I thought somebody has to write a book about this so I'll be the one to do it. I was really lucky. I was able to sign on as an apprentice crew member for the ship, which gave me a really great firsthand knowledge of how the ship worked and exactly what it was like to live below."

The result is "All Standing: The True Story of Hunger, Rebellion, and Survival Aboard the Jeanie Johnston" (Free Press, $26).

Miles, 38, lives in Belfast with her partner, a boat captain, and teaches environmental writing at Unity College. She started out as a journalist but ended up earning a degree in philosophy from Saint Louis University, then a doctorate in English from the University of Delaware. She thought her life's work would focus on criticism and scholarship.

"When the job at Unity College opened up, it was for a slightly different focus, and that was more on creative nonfiction, which was somthing of a shift for me but a very welcome shift," she said. "And so now I kind of find myself right back where I started, which is doing a lot of reporting, narrative nonfiction storytelling and that sort of work. These stories are better than any story you can make up. All I have to do is just listen and stay out of the way, and the stories oftentimes tell themselves."

She tells the story of the Jeanie Johnston by following the family of infant Nicholas Reilly, who was born on the ship. 

Q: Your descriptions are very detailed. Describe the kind of research you had to do to bring this era to life.

A: It was a challenge. Because the Irish famine was happening and it was obviously this major crisis, and because Ireland was a fairly unwanted colony being held by Britain, record keeping was not foremost in anyone's mind. So there was a lot of archival digging that I had to do, a lot of reading blurry microfilm in very cold library basements. But there was also some very exciting work as well, like tracking down the ship manifests and being able to see the notes that were taken in (Captain James Attridge's) own handwriting.

And, of course, sailing on the ship was a remarkable experience. I had some tall ship experience sailing on some of the schooners here in Maine, so I knew a little bit about it, but I don't think anything can really prepare you for that experience.

We encountered a pretty bad storm when we were out, and it didn't feel like it at the time, but that was very useful as well. I was laying down below deck. I was on a break between watches, and I was listening to the way the ship just shuddered and screamed as it was pitching through these storms, and I just kept thinking, you know, these people who are already suffering so much and had never before been at sea, they endured this for weeks on end, and just that realization really forged a connection between me and some of the characters in the book.

(Continued on page 2)

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