By Peggy Wirgau
Illuminate YA, 2021
Reviewed by Casey O’Leary
Many young readers are fascinated by the Titanic. Whether it’s a chapter book focused on survival, a nonfiction tome loaded with photographs and firsthand accounts, or a movie with a tear-jerking soundtrack, young people are drawn to the excitement, the horror, and the resurrection of the doomed ocean liner that sank in April 1912.
Peggy Wirgau’s The Stars in April presents an engaging fictional story based on the life of an actual survivor of the sinking of the Titanic, Ruth Becker. Only twelve years old on that fateful night, Becker was the daughter of American missionaries assigned to run an orphanage in India. When her younger brother Richard falls ill, Ruth’s parents decide to return to the United States, booking passage on Titanic’s maiden voyage to cushion the blow to their children as they temporarily leave their father behind.
Interestingly, the most fascinating journey in The Stars in April is not the one that takes place on the ill-fated Titanic but the first leg of the Beckers’ journey, traveling from India to England by train and ship. Wirgau uses sights and sounds to convey experiences: the oppressive heat on the train rocking through India; the agonizingly slow maneuvering through the Suez Canal by the ship, the gorgeous view as the ship passes Morocco, and the first blast of cold wind on the faces of passengers arriving in Southampton, England. Throughout, Ruth keeps her father close by journaling about the stars she sees in the night sky, knowing her father is seeing the same constellations in India. Ruth’s childish spirit ensures that, even as she mourns the loss of her old life, she encounters each new person and event with willingness and an open mind.
Ruth’s enthusiasm for new opportunities is in stark contrast to her conservative, ladylike mother, Nellie, whose disdain for travel and for most of her fellow travelers provides consistent tension throughout the story. This mirrors modern Christianity itself, a generational faceoff between those who focus on rules of moral restraint to show piety and devotion to God and those who believe God is in other people and that the quality of our relationships with others is the strongest indicator of our embodiment of faith.
It is this division, not the eventual sinking of the Titanic, that provides the most personal growth to Ruth and her mother. In fact, by the time Ruth finds herself in a second-class Titanic stateroom, she’s already developed relationships with fellow travelers outside of her family’s traditional sphere, including a father-son circus act and young English suffragettes returning from holiday. Nellie not only disdains those who are not like her but also those she cannot pity and rescue in her role of missionary wife. Ruth actually sees these people as exciting, innovative, and worthy of respect, and in so doing teaches her mother that God cares for everyone, not just those who seemingly cannot care for themselves.
The climactic, inevitable sinking of the Titanic is handled appropriately for young readers, who will appreciate Wirgau’s detailed account of Ruth’s heroism. In addition, Wirgau offers much in the way of educational materials for readers, including photographs, discussion questions, and a compelling epilogue.
Even though the book is labeled “YA,” or “Young Adult,” the likely reader will be between the ages of 8 and 11, making the title more of a middle-grade book than a young adult one. In addition, the publisher, Illuminate YA Fiction “publishes YA fiction in all subgenres (except LGBTQ+),” according to its website. Readers will need to consider if they wish to financially support a publisher that intentionally excludes LGBTQ+ content for publication.
Overall, The Stars in April is clearly a labor of love for Wirgau that benefits readers with varying interests and skill levels. Instead of exploiting the Titanic’s storied history for shock value, readers are taken on a journey of exploration and excitement, and discover a deeper understanding of how God can be found in the connections we make with others along the way.
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© 2022 by Christian Feminism Today.
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