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Luck of the Titanic

by Stacey Lee

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee X
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee
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    May 2021, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Althea Draper
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1

April 10, 1912

When my twin, Jamie, left, he vowed it wouldn't be forever. Only a week before Halley's Comet brushed the London skies, he kissed my cheek and set off. One comet in, one comet out. But two years away is more than enough time to clear his head, even in the coal-­thickened air at the bottom of a steamship. Since he hasn't come home, it is time to chase down the comet's tail.

I try not to fidget while I wait my turn on the first-­class gangway of White Star Line's newest ocean liner. A roofed corridor—­to spare the nobs the inconvenience of sunshine—­leads directly from the "boat train" depot to this highest crossing. At least we are far from the rats on Southampton dock below, which is crawling with them.

Of course, some up here might consider me a rat.

The couple ahead of me eyes me warily, even though I am dressed in one of Mrs. Sloane's smartest traveling suits—­shark grey to match her usual temper, with a swath of black bee-­swarm lace pinned from shoulder to shoulder. A lifetime of those dodgy looks teaches you to ignore them. Haven't I already survived the journey from London? A half a day's travel, packed into a smoky railcar, next to a man who stank of sardines. And here I am, so close to the finish line, I can nearly smell Jamie—­like trampled ryegrass and the milk biscuits he is so fond of eating.

An ocean breeze cools my cheeks. Several stories below in either direction, onlookers crowd the dock, staring up at the ship rising six stories before them. Its hull gleams, a wall of liquid black with a quartet of smokestacks so wide you could drive a train through them. Stately letters march across its side: "TITANIC." On the third-class gangway a hundred feet to my left, passengers sport a variety of costume: headscarves, patterned kaftans, fringed shawls of botany wool, tasseled caps, and plain dungarees and straw hats. I don't see a single Chinese face among them. Has Jamie boarded already? With this crowd, I may have missed him.

Then again, he isn't traveling alone, but with seven other Chinese men from his company. All are being transported to Cuba for a new route after coal strikes here berthed their steamship.

Something cold unspools in my belly. I received his last letter a month ago. Time enough for things to change. What if Jamie's company decided to send them somewhere other than Cuba, maybe a new route in Asia or Africa?

The line shifts. Only a few more passengers ahead of me.

Jamie! I call in my mind, a game I often played growing up. He doesn't always hear, but I like to think he does when it matters.

In China, a dragon-phoenix pair of boy-and-girl twins is considered auspicious, and so Ba bought two suckling pigs to celebrate our birth, roasted side by side to show their common lot. Some may think that macabre, but to the Chinese, death is just a continuation of life on a higher plane with our ancestors.

Jamie, your sister is here. Look for me.

Won't he be surprised to see me? Shocked may be more accurate—Jamie has never handled surprise well—but I will get him to see that it is time for him, forus, to move on to bigger and better things, just as our father hoped.

I think back to the telegram I sent him when Ba passed five months ago.

Ba hit his head on post and died. Please come home. Ever your Val.

Jamie wrote back:

Rec'd news and hope you are bearing up okay. Very sorry, but I have eight months left on my contract and cannot get away. Write me details. Your Jamie.

Jamie would have known that Ba had been drunk when he hit his head, and I knew he wouldn't mourn like I had. When you live with someone whose mistress is the bottle, you say your goodbyes long before they depart.

Someone behind me clears her throat. A woman in a pinstriped "menswear" suit that fits her slender figure like stripes on a zebra watches me, an ironic smile wrapped around her cigarette. I put her in her early twenties. Somehow dressing in men's clothing seems to heighten her femininity, with her creamy skin and dark hair that swings to her delicate chin. She lifts that chin toward the entrance, where a severe-looking officer stands like a box nail, a puzzled look on his face.

Excerpted from Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee. Copyright © 2021 by Stacey Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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