Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – a haunting tale of shipwreck and survival

Who isn’t fascinated by survival stories? I mean look at all those Survivor series on TV. But Survivor doesn’t dump its contestants in a locality like the Auckland Islands – windswept and rugged, and at 360 km south of New Zealand, inhospitable to say the least. In her latest book, Cristina Sanders explores the true story of one of New Zealand’s most intriguing shipwrecks and the fate of the fifteen survivors who washed ashore there.

In 1866, the General Grant was sailing from Australia to Britain, carrying assorted cargo including a quantity of gold as well as some of the miners who had worked for it. Among them, Joseph Jewell, is planning to use his bundle of nuggets to buy a holding in Devon and build a future. He is recently married and his young wife Mary, the Mrs Jewell of the title, the only female survivor. But before we get to that, the novel describes Mary making friends with the other families on board, the wives and their children, while Joseph works his passage as a seaman.

This sets the scene for the terrible events of the shipwreck as the General Grant is driven irrevocably towards cliffs and sucked into a cave which cripples the ship and causes it to sink. If it hadn’t been dark, if there wasn’t such a swell, the lifeboats might have been launched in time to save more of those onboard. Cristina Sanders brings the horror of the situation to life and you’re there with Mary as she is pushed overboard by Joseph and dragged into one of the lifeboats, while around her the women and children she’d got to know are lost at sea.

It’s almost a relief when the ‘lucky’ fifteen make land. But now the real work begins – the fight for survival. With very little food salvaged and biting cold, the fifteen not only battle the elements to stay alive, but also despair and pessimism. And Mary, the only woman, as well as young and attractive, feels the horror of her situation, particularly as her husband, hampered by depression, withdraws from her, leaving her to the predatory glances and overtures of the miner, Bill Scott.

Mrs Grant and the wreck of the General Grant is unflinching in its retelling of what might have happened, based on a load of research and a few letters recovered from survivors. The book includes a picture of the Grants in their hand-stitched sealskin clothing – the seals are vital for food as well. It’s either seal meat or shellfish and the energy expended to stalk, kill, butcher and cook the unappetising mammals is all there for the reader. Over the year and a half the survivors remain on their island, they get quite proficient at feeding themselves, building huts and expand their diet. But Mary can’t help wondering, will they ever be rescued?

We had all been living so long in such danger that our group fermented in a broth of obligations and duties and cares as we got through each day. All the tensions, each disappointment simmered; we lived so bound to each other and slept all packed together every night.

You get some intense scenes – the battle to start their first fire with a handful of matches and damp kindling will have you chewing your knuckles. And the book explores the way leadership shifts as the old hierarchies seem no longer relevant. Mr Brown, the first mate, struggles to stay sane and it’s the miner James Teer, Mary’s lifeboat rescuer, who helps them pull together. The characters of the survivors are reflected in the way they each respond to events large and small, while the thought of all that gold lost on the ship taunts them.

Mary is a well-rounded character and engaging narrator, dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, as well as expressing a watchfulness around the motives of the others. The writing is brilliant – evocative and immediate, and brings the situation to life beautifully. Its a great story and there are scenes here I shall never forget. Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant gets a four out of five from me.