Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: And the Band Played On ... by Christopher Ward

And the Band Played On ... The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank by Christopher Ward

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about: Christopher Ward's grandfather, Jock Hume, boarded the Titanic in April 1912 as a young violinist with the ship's band. After bravely playing up to the final moments of the sinking and famously ending with the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee," Jock strapped his violin case to his chest for extra buoyancy and jumped into the icy water. He did not survive.

Jock Hume via
This book tells the story of what happened after those final moments. Hume's pay was officially ended at 2:20am, April 15th, 1912, and a few days later his family received a bill in the mail for the buttons on his uniform. Hume also left behind a pregnant fiancée, Kate Costin, who a few months later gave birth to the author's mother, Johnann Costin. Jock's father, a musician and violin maker, pathological liar and all around sketchy guy, tried to reap as much money from his son's death as he could.

Meanwhile, a few days after the sinking, cable ship Mackay-Bennett returned to the site of the sinking to retrieve the Titanic dead. Jock's body was recovered, identified, and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His personal effects, including a pocket watch and violin mute, where sent back to his family in mortuary bag labeled "Body no. 193."

I thought: The two major complaints about this book from reviewers on Goodreads is that the narrative jumps around too much and that Ward takes too many liberties with his research. I didn't have a problem with either of these things. In fact, I LOVED that this book started with a family history project. Allow me to explain. I'm Mormon. We Mormons love us some family history. When I was growing up I always heard about my great grandparents and other ancestors, and it seemed that some relative or another was always in the middle of a major family history project. I always felt a special connection to my great grandmother, Lola Davada Olsen, whom I was named after. Unfortunately, she didn't leave behind journals or letters, nor was she involved in heavily documented life events, so I don't know as much about her as I wish I could.

The fact that this book was written about the author's own grandparents and great grandparents and the time and effort he put into his research, which was obviously very meaningful to him, is what made this book absolutely wonderful. I know that it is quite possible to find all the details that Ward was able to find, (especially when you have a slew of research assistants, as he did.) Almost all the details he writes about were gleaned from letters, official records, or people who knew and wrote about Jock and the Titanic band. I love how Ward's narration seems to follow his research, rather than rearranged into chronological or some other order. It seemed quite natural and comfortable to me.

Besides all that, the story itself was absolutely fascinating. Ward had the opportunity to dwell on some gruesome details, like the state of many of the frozen bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett - which he touched on just enough to satiate my curiosity, (which usually overextends itself far beyond what is good for me anyway,) but the book actually focuses more on Jock's family and ended on a positive note. See my favorite excerpt below for a good example of how Ward was able to draw the details of this story together in a meaningful and quite satisfying way. 

The paperback version of this book was just released in honor of the Titanic centenary. Buy it here
Christopher Ward via

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: If you're a Titanic enthusiast or even someone with just a passing interest, this well-written and fascinating story is definitely one you'll want to add to your collection.

Discover UK also recently aired a documentary based on this story. For more information, check out the book's website.

Warnings: Some disturbing descriptions of the bodies of Titanic victims near the beginning of the book.

Favorite excerpts: [After buying a violin supposedly made by his great grandfather, Andrew Hume:] "It is very difficult getting experts to commit themselves to opinions, particularly when they know they are likely to appear in print. But I managed to get Rattray and Woolston to agree on two things. My newly acquired Hume violin is a good, if not a great instrument, with a very fine sound. And the person who made it was not the person who varnished it, the construction being superior to the varnishing. The implication was clear. This was a violin bought 'in the white', probably in Saxony, and varnished by Hume. An original Hume fake. I felt proud to own it and wished not for the first time in my life, that I had learned to play the violin.

I had the good fortune, soon after the publication of the hardback edition of this book, to be invited to talk at a few book festivals. I asked a young postgraduate student at the Academy, Catriona Price, who comes from Orkney, if she would accompany me to some of these author events and play Andrew Hume's violin. As people arrived, Catriona played Scottish jigs, the sort of music that Jock described as 'something to cheer them up' and, at the end, played three verses of 'Nearer My God To Thee'. No microphone was needed, although some of the venues were quite large. As people settled in their seats, many were tapping their feet; as they left, they were drying their eyes.

This, I thought, was just the kind of violin that Jock would have been proud to have with him on the Titanic."

What I'm reading next: Torch by Cheryl Strayed