Saturday 5 November 2022

Book Review: Asleep in the Deep

Review by Liz Downes:

Staring from the cover of Trisha Fielding’s latest book, Asleep in the Deep, is the face of a young man seemingly gazing with confidence into his future. It is perhaps with the benefit of hindsight that we  detect the vulnerability of youth in his wide eyes and smooth complexion, for the subtitle warns us that in fact his future was tragically short.  Clifford (Cliff) O’Brien was among the 122 souls lost in one of Australia’s worst peacetime maritime disasters: the wreck of the SS Yongala in March 1911.

Townsville Museum President Trish Cronin (left) with author Trisha Fielding (right) at the launch of Asleep in the Deep: a love lost on the SS Yongala. Photo: Wendy Simpkins.
The impact of the Yongala tragedy was huge throughout Queensland and beyond, but was especially felt in the north which was home to many of the passengers. Most notable was the Rooney family, Matthew Rooney being a well-known Townsville builder. Among many other northerners were a mother and son from Charters Towers, the matron of Townsville’s hospital and, perhaps most poignantly, a Cairns mother and her four children, one of them just six weeks old.
Yet, while we may know their names and a few limited details of their lives, from this distance in time it is hard to fully appreciate the extent of the emotional burden borne by their bereaved families. We might imagine the alternating dread and hope that filled those early days when the ship’s fate was still unknown. We might contemplate the strain of never knowing exactly what had happened or where in the ocean one’s loved ones lay, despite extensive searches and enquiries. But the immediacy of that grief and strain is lost.

Composite portrait of Clifford and Georgina O'Brien. 
Photographed in 2022 by Trisha Fielding [from an original held by Townsville Museum]

It is this gap that a recently discovered diary helps to fill, greatly enhanced by Trisha’s skillful and sensitive interpretation. The ‘diary’ (too weighty to be termed a scrapbook) was sent anonymously to the Townsville Museum nearly four years ago.  Compiled by Cliff’s widow, Georgina, a collection of carefully pasted telegrams, letters, newspaper articles and photographs, document her anxiety and desperation in those early days and, as time passed, her dogged attempts to record all developments in the subsequent search for answers. Through her thoughtful interrogation of the diary, Trisha allows us to experience something of Georgina’s agony as she progressed from confusion and uncertainty to shock, grief and a lifetime of searching for the truth.

Townsville Museum & Historical Society President Trish Cronin (left) with Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill (right), at the launch of Asleep in the Deep: a love lost on the SS Yongala, by Trisha Fielding.
Photo: Wendy Simpkins.

There are many touching inclusions, such as the letter from Cliff’s own father to Georgina’s, mourning the loss of his “beloved boy” while generously recognizing that it is on Georgina that “the blow falls with the fullest force”. Equally moving is Georgina’s strong desire to have Cliff’s status as the father of their unborn child openly acknowledged, demonstrated by the steps she took to ensure this was recorded on his death certificate.

Intriguingly Trisha’s skills as a historian, and her eye for detail, allowed her to pick up those little clues – a choice of words, things said or unsaid, a significant absence or pertinent date – which reveal an intriguing back story to this tragically brief marriage: a marriage which seems to have begun under a cloud of scandal and family estrangement. Yet it is comforting to find that, in Georgina’s worst hours, her family were there to support her through those first dark days and the long years which she devoted to her husband’s memory and their daughter’s future. 

Trisha’s own meticulous photography of items in the diary greatly enhances the visual appeal of her book and the sense of an historical archive revealed. I closed Asleep in the Deep with the feeling that Georgina would be both proud and content at the way her century-old story has been presented for a modern audience.

Liz Downes
James Cook University Library Special Collections Volunteer

Book details:

Title: Asleep in the Deep: a love lost on the SS Yongala
Author: Trisha Fielding
Publisher: Townsville Museum and Historical Society, 2022
ISBN: 9780646858975
Other: 43 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 297mm x 210mm (portrait)

Where you can get a copy:

Price: $20
Available exclusively from the Townsville Museum and Historical Society

No comments:

Post a Comment