Living at the beginning of the 20th century in what was then considered to be Ontario’s up-and-coming community of Wiarton, James Crawford was a prominent community figure and captain of a local steamship, the J.H. Jones. In the fall, brutal storms on Georgian Bay often proved fatal to fishermen and steamship captains alike. In late November 1906, Crawford’s ship and all its 30 passengers were lost in such a storm. The wreck remains missing to this day.
Speculation arose about Crawford’s judgment on the day of the wreck. Was it greed that motivated him to leave port in such poor weather? Was the ship overloaded? These questions had a tremendous impact on Crawford’s surviving wife and children, who were looked on by some townspeople with the suspicion and contempt that is fuelled by hindsight.
In the first half of Into the Blue, journalist and editor Andrea Curtis investigates the story of the town and the wreck itself, providing well-paced fictionalized re-enactments based on detailed historical research. The more compelling second half follows Curtis’s grandmother Eleanor, one of Crawford’s children who was only a year old at the time of the shipwreck.
Curtis manages to navigate her way around the kind of sentimentality that characterizes so many family memoirs. The process of discovery and research is very much inscribed in the book itself. Curtis takes readers to the offices of Environment Canada to look up century-old weather reports for Georgian Bay to better understand the circumstances of the wreck itself. But as a granddaughter, Curtis thinks to open up her grandmother’s locket, revealing extra pictures behind the glass and clues to parts of Eleanor’s life left out of family stories.
Ultimately the metamemoir is a balancing act, a creation of Curtis’s insatiable curiosity about her family and her desire to avoid the kind of “conflicting demands, the muddled self-interest, the pride and censure” associated with airing family secrets. Curtis tries to understand how the wreck of the Jones affected her grandmother’s life, discovering that “like a family story, the tale of the Jones is messy and incomplete. It will never be quite finished.”