By Mary Chan
Though officially classified as non-fiction, Gary Kinder’s Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea could fall into many literary genres. To begin with, it is a well-researched historic novel, detailing the sinking of the sidewheel steamship Central America off the us East coast. On Sept. 12, 1857, the Central America sank in a hurricane—the largest peacetime disaster in American history. Over 400 of almost 600 passengers perished and at least $1.6 million worth of gold was lost. Most of the gold belonged to passengers on the final leg of their journey home from California after either getting rich in the California gold rush or barely saving enough to pay for the voyage to New York.
Kinder reconstructs the doomed voyage from navigational data, personal diaries, letters of survivors, and numerous newspaper accounts, some of which contained interviews with survivors. He tells the story from the views several passengers, quoting them when possible, resulting in a gripping tale that rivals Titanic for tragedy, bravery and heroism.
Yet, Ship of Gold could also be a mystery. About 130 years later, a young engineer named Tommy Thompson attempted to search for the wreckage of the Central America. Kinder addresses all the problems Thompson faced, and presents the solutions in pieces at appropriate times.
In one of the more intriguing passages, Thompson and colleague Bob Evans assemble a giant chart on a wall containing any and all relevant information about where the ship was when it sank, the conditions at the time, and where the Central America would have finally touched the ocean floor.
However, Ship of Gold is mainly an old-fashioned adventure story about 20th century explorers using very new technology; a parallel to prospectors flocking to California to find gold, Thompson is unwavering in his search for the Central America. Kinder vividly details the quest: the engineering challenges of working underwater in complete darkness and incredible pressure; the challenges of convincing investors to back the search; and the protection of a precious rectangle of ocean from rival boats.
Kinder writes in a tight, straightforward manner, smoothly switching between 1857 and the late 1980s. We hear the creaking of the Central America’s wooden hull and feel the iron paddle groan to a halt. We are fearful when a potential investor brings in naval experts who dispute Thompson’s theories, and thrilled when Thompson’s crew finally finds the site (and gold) in 1988. Kinder harnesses the facts of this sprawling story (nautical terms, technological advances) and shapes them into a cohesive novel despite some overpowering technobabble.
Of course, every good adventure story has a hero, and this story’s is actually the American spirit, as personified by Tommy Thompson. My Canadian side feels Kinder falters here by painting Thompson as a hero in the epilogue, including unnecessary gushing over his accomplishments, which stand on their own. Kinder writes best when presenting facts, which he does. And that’s the most fascinating part about this book: it’s true.