All Standing by Kathryn Miles

The dreaded coffin ships were a bitter reality of the Irish Potato Famine.  These were vessels in which passengers were asall standing likely to die from sickness and malnutrition en route to Canada and the United States as they were in their ravaged native country.  In most instances, passengers were baggage and ballast – something to cart over to North America to exchange for more lucrative lumber and grain coming back to Great Britain.  The owners of these ships put very little thought into the well-being of their human cargo – as such, North American ports were flooded with diseased and impoverished immigrants.

All Standing tells of an exception to the standards of the time – the Jeanie Johnston, a sailing ship built by a surprisingly humanitarian shipwright and owned by a driven Irish businessman who liked to keep one step ahead of his competitors.  He did this by providing the ship with a competent captain, doctor, and crew, and feeding the passengers in steerage, if not well, at least better than the prevailing standards.

The author breaks up the tale of the Jeanie Johnston – from her first voyage from Ireland in 1848 to her demise ten years later – with the back story of the famine, along with a focus on a specific family, the Reillys, and their settlement in the midwest.  The book captures the grimness of the times and the dangers of sailing ships very well.  After reading the chapters describing the storms during voyages, I wondered how anybody managed to get over here alive, but they did – and the Jeanie Johnston had the best track record for this during the famine years.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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