Torpedoed! A World War II Story of a Sinking Passenger Ship and Two Children’s Survival at Sea

Cheryl Mullenbach. Chicago Review (IPG, dist.), $17.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-61373-824-5

On September 3, 1939, just hours after Great Britain declared war on Germany, the British luxury liner Athenia became the first casualty of WWII’s Battle of the Atlantic when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. Mullenbach’s account of the tragedy, which claimed 112 lives, focuses on two survivors: 14-year-old Florence Kelly and 11-year-old Russell Park, who were returning to the U.S. after family holidays in England. Initial recountings of their families’ initial sea crossings bog down in descriptions of the ships’ décor and amenities, making for a sluggish lead-in to the book’s central event. Rundowns of the international economic and political conditions, such as the rise of European dictators that fueled the buildup to war, provide valuable context, and extensive closing notes delineate Mullenbach’s thorough sourcing. Though the writing can be clunky in places (both Florence and Russell “were confident kids who were comfortable spending time with adults and who looked forward to new ventures to unfamiliar places”), Mullenbach’s descriptions of the torpedo strike and subsequent rescue efforts, laced with survivors’ first-person accounts, are immediate and chilling. Maps and archival b&w photos are included. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)