The Boy Who Lost Everything

By Michelle Porter, New Brunswick Reader April 23, 2005


Seven years ago a simple thing happened to storyteller and writer Sheree Fitch. CBC Radio asked if she would write a short story to broadcast over the Christmas season. Sheree Fitch almost said no. "Give me three days," she said instead, swallowing her refusal and shuffling her schedule in her mind. "I’ll see what I can come up with."

Three days later in a lined notebook in front of a cup of coffee, Cinnamon Hotchkiss was born. Cinnamon Hotchkiss and the Flying Toboggan aired in December of 1997, the story of a spirited girl trying to make sense of her world after her mother loses a baby over the Christmas holidays.

That should have been that. But Cinnamon kept nudging at Fitch, insistently and irreverently, until she presented the character to her then-editor at Doubleday Canada. Her idea: a children’s picture-book. The answer: No. The editor didn’t want a children’s picture-book. "This is not a picture book Sheree," he said. "This is the novel you’ve been wanting to write for 20 years."

A little reluctantly – she had so many projects on the go – Sheree sat down to write her first novel.

In spare and beautiful prose, Fitch followed Cinnamon as her family grieved, her mother fell into a depression and the adolescent young girl was sent to fictional Boulder Basin to live with her grandmother.

This is where the story stalled. Fitch needed more. "I told my husband. I want a boy in this book. A twelve-year-old boy. And a shipwreck."

One hundred and thirty-two years ago a ship called the SS Atlantic sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage for New York. The tragedy that would occur off the coast of Nova Scotia one night when then wind whipped the waves into menacing claws would never be explained to anyone's satisfaction.

In the disaster's wake, speculation swirled. The one inquiry into the cause of the shipwreck concluded that "the conduct of Captain Williams in the management of his ship during the 12 or 14 hours preceding the disaster, was so gravely at variance with what ought to have been the conduct of a man placed in his responsible position…"

On board this ship was a twelve-year-old boy named John Hinley. He began the voyage with his mother, father and older brother. He would be the only one in his family to survive the voyage. In fact, he would be the only child who survived at all.

The journey from short story to novel was littered with coincidences.

The first one appeared on a restless day in Nova Scotia with her husband. They decided to take a drive to Terence Bay Cemetery. As they walked about, reading gravestones and monuments, they found one they’d never seen before. It read: Near this spot wrecked the SS Atlantic April 1, 1873, when 562 persons perished of whom 227 were interred in this churchyard. Shivers ran down Fitch’s spine. "This is the story of the greatest loss of life in a single North Atlantic tragedy at sea before the Titanic. I’d spent summers there all my life and I’d never heard about it." Then and there she decided to use the real-life story of the shipwreck as a backdrop to Cinnamon’s story of loss.

But why would Cinnamon become interested in the shipwreck? Again real life provided the answers. The graveyard had been eroding. Bones were drifting out to sea and washing ashore. Concerned citizens in Terence Bay wanted to restore and rebuild the graveyard.

Graveyards. Bones. Shipwrecks. It was all good.

But what about the second character she wanted? The boy? She looked to the list of survivors. A friend did some research. He came back to her with this: of the 952 passengers aboard the SS Atlantic that night, not a single woman survived. Very few married men survived, most choosing to die beside their wives and children. And, only one child survived the wreck. Twelve-year-old John Hinley.

As Fitch looked at the picture of John Hinley taken for the newspapers she was struck by the blank sadness in his eyes. She wept. "It was like he was saying, 'tell my story'," she explained.

So she did.

She wrapped the story of one boy’s terrible loss around Cinnamon’s grief and she called the story The Gravesavers.

Hinley's story was elusive. Even his real name remains a mystery. It is possible newspapers recorded his name inaccurately. It is possible his real name was Hanley or Handley, or even, as Fitch decided upon, Hindley.

Although he was hailed over the world as the lone child survivor of the worst sea catastrophe in decades, he was only attributed one quote. "My name is John Hinley. I am about twelve years old. I come from Ashton Under Lyon."

There wasn’t much even for an imaginative writer to go on. She did know he had gone on to live with an aunt in New York. After that, his trail vanished. What would happen to a boy who had watched everything – his family, his future – fall into the depths of the stormy sea?

Again, a coincidence led Fitch to an answer. Someone knew someone who had the name of a woman who claimed to be a distant descendant of John Hinley’s. The woman lived only about 20 minutes from Fitch’s home in Washington D.C. at the time. So Sheri set up a meeting. She asked: what was his life like?

The woman didn’t answer immediately. "She paused," Fitch said. "Then she told me. 'It wasn’t a very happy story. He never married. He had a drinking problem. And we don’t know whether he jumped or he stumbled.'"

On April 1, 1873 Captain Williams turned the steamship passenger liner back towards Halifax to get more bunkering coal and food. Winds were high and the weather stormy. But, unworried, he retired to his quarters for a nap at 2 a.m. He awoke an hour later, in time to watch his ship’s bow strike rocks along the unfamiliar shore line. Her stern swung at more rocks, tearing the hull before grounding.

Waves swept away lifeboats on the port side, and within minutes, the Atlantic keeled over. The ship began to fill with water and passengers crowded the decks. Many were swept out to sea by the licking waves which poured over the almost-perpendicular ship. Those still trapped in steerage, drowned.

A young woman and a desperate crew member were among many who climbed the mizzen mast to escape the waves. Both were found by rescuers – dead of cold and exposure. Shivering crewmen swam through icy waters to rig lifelines to nearby rocks. Terrified and cold, men tried to shimmy over the waves clinging to the ropes while enormous waves and sheer exhaustion took all but the strongest.

John Hinley? He climbed the mizzen mast. He held on for most of the night, watching as wave after waves swept the crew and passengers into the sea. He held on while his entire family drowned. He held on until help came – Nova Scotian fishermen in boats.

The gulf between imagination and experience was almost too large for the Moncton-raised author.

"I had such a hard time writing the shipwreck scene," she confessed. "It was terrifying to write."

At first Fitch chose to write the unimaginable scene in a staccato rhythm. Everybody spoke in short sentences, everything happened quickly. At the time, she had imagined that during and after a catastrophe people didn’t use full sentences, that they became slightly incoherent.

One night, she learned differently.

On December 26, 2004 Fitch – like almost everyone in New Brunswick – was spending a quiet day at home. She’d already approved the final draft of her book. It was slated to be sent to the printer after the holiday. That never happened.

Because Fitch turned on her television and joined the world in helpless awe as scenes of disaster unfolded on her screen. She was watching the aftermath of the Tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Everything she watched – the destruction, the death, the shock of survivors – brought Hinley’s story home. "I thought, how could this little boy survive," she said.

More than that, she listened to the survivors tell their stories.

"They didn’t talk in staccato," she said.

Instead, they spoke almost eloquently. She knew she had to re-write. The resulting scene is elegant and heart-breaking.

Fitch’s novel took her on a seven-year journey back into her childhood days. Through Cinnamon she returned to the province in which she was raised, New Brunswick. Through Cinnamon’s eyes she returned to Chester Basin where she vacationed every summer as a child. And through Cinnamon’s unrestrained imagination she re-lived her childhood fascination with shipwrecks, ghost stories and the unexplained.

But, oddly, this contemporary coming-of-age story for readers of all ages could not have begun until seven years ago. Fitch waited until her two sons were out of the house before giving herself the freedom to dive into a novel.

Today, after four years in Washington D.C., she’s looking to her future. She moved there with her husband when he accepted a two-year contract. Two-years easily became four and now they are talking: do they want to stay another two years or return to Canada?

Fitch would like to return to Canada. "But my husband enjoys his work here," she said. "I can do what I do wherever I am." Fitch is a poet and author of more than fourteen books for children.

She is at work on another novel. This one is an adult novel, and she finds it somewhat disorientating to be drawn back into Cinnamon’s adolescent world.

"I’m talking about Cinnamon’s imagination while at the same time I’m trying to write a sex scene in my current novel. I’m not sure I can do it."

Fitch is bubbly and laughs a lot, but she is serious about Gravesavers. "It’s a book about loss. It’s a book about grief," she says. She admits that the book doesn’t fit typical young adult conventions. The book has weight.

"I wrote a book that I wanted to read at that age. What did I love? I loved adventure. I loved mysteries. I loved the spiritual and the unexplained."

She says she wrote the book for readers of all ages. She’s right. The book will appeal to a much wider audience than the young adult readers to whom her publishers are marketing the book.

For Fitch, as will be true for many of her readers, the end of the book The Gravesavers is not the end of the story. Like Fitch, her readers will feel compelled to do a bit of their own research about the SS Atlantic and the events of April 1, 1873.

Because even after all the research, even after all the imagining and after writing a book which beautifully connects a very contemporary girl with a historical tragedy and its lone child survivor, Fitch can’t know enough about John Hinley.

"The mystery that is John still continues," she said.