YA veteran Stacey Lee gives us another diverse historical twist in her newest novel, Luck of the Titanic, which imagines the notorious and glamorous ship through the eyes of a young Chinese woman.
Valora Luck has been separated from her twin brother Jamie for two long years. They used to be practically attached, and now that both her parents have died, she desperately wants to reunite. She was supposed to sail on the new vessel the Titanic with her employer, where Jamie works, until the woman suddenly dies. Now she sneaks onto first class in disguise, after being told Chinese people are barred from entering the U.S. She is determined not only to find her brother, but also to wow the owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Her father trained the twins as acrobats since birth, and she is determined to fulfill his dream.
She makes it onto the ship and finds Jamie fairly easily, but he is less than thrilled to see her. Still, Val is resolute, so she refuses to get off the ship. She returns to her first class cabin, but finds that passing as her late employer is harder than she expected. Wearing a veil covers her face, but several crew members are still suspicious. Undeterred, she devotes all her time to finding the circus owner. If she can just talk up the twins’ act, she knows they’ll get an audition and make it into America. Along the way, she forms several unlikely alliances, including one with an eccentric fashion designer who is officially my favorite character.
Now, this wasn’t an extremely fast-paced book, but each page burst with tension. Of course, the Titanic’s sinking is infamous, and any story that takes place on its deck has tension built in. We all know the story, and yet we still fall in love with the characters on board, hoping they will be the ones that survive. Lee masterfully builds on that tension using the relationship between the two main characters.
Which brings me to my favorite part of the story, the relationship between Jamie and Valora. These two are so obviously siblings, with the same passion and stubbornness. Val is a complete badass who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, although most of her plans are “half-baked.” This annoys Jamie to no end, although he clearly loves his sister. Their clash comes in how they remember their parents. Val idolized their father and will do anything to protect his memory, while Jamie is more cynical. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments come when he makes Val realize her childhood wasn’t what she remembers. Jamie doesn’t want to come to America, and Val spends most of the book trying to decide if she can bear to let him go. As a sister who is very close to her brother, I appreciated how honest and beautiful this relationship was.
As always, Lee does a fantastic job showing honest portrayals of the racism Chinese people faced in this period. Val goes back and forth between first and third class, so we see the various, interesting characters populate both worlds. In particular, the Chinese workers who live with Jamie each have their own fully developed, distinct personalities. I found myself deeply caring about each of them, which only made the third act more suspenseful.
On the surface, the Titanic is a story that’s been done to death. But Valora’s story is one of grit and determination, more than luck. It is a fresh take, one that is beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I highly recommend it.
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee was published on May 4, 2021.