Skip to main content

Lifeboat 12


Lifeboat 12

In her author’s note, LIFEBOAT 12 author Susan Hood writes, “The tragic events aboard the Benares and the miracle of Lifeboat 12’s rescue are so astounding that my first thought was to write a nonfiction book. Otherwise, I feared no one would believe it!” Hood is correct in her assessment of the unbelievability of the events she features in LIFEBOAT 12; however, she is incorrect in her initial belief that the story could not be believed if it wasn’t written as nonfiction, as LIFEBOAT 12, an historical fiction novel in verse,  is supremely believable and even more compelling because of it.
LIFEBOAT 12 is told from the perspective of 13-year-old Kenneth “Ken” Sparks, a real person who experienced and survived the events portrayed in the book; in fact, Hood interviewed Ken on several occasions as she was researching and writing the book. The portion of Ken’s life featured in LIFEBOAT 12 begins in 1940 as WWII rages across Europe and London is the target of almost nightly bombing by the Nazis. Ken is one of more than 200,000 children who has applied for just 20,000 spots with the Children’s Overseas Reception Board’s program that sought to remove children from the dangers of London and resettle them in British Dominions. Ken is one of the lucky ones selected for the program and is given one of the just 90 spots on the SS City of Benares, which will transport Ken and the other evacuees to Canada.

"LIFEBOAT 12 is an important book about a little known historical event with broad genre and audience appeal. I believe that LIFEBOAT 12 is a book for readers of all ages."

Although Ken is sad to be leaving his family and home, he, like any 13-year-old boy, is thrilled for the adventures that await him especially when he sees the Benares. Ken’s excitement grows as he and the others board the ship; the evacuees are treated to food and luxuries previously unknown to them. However, the danger they are fleeing is never far from their minds, especially since the Benares is accompanied by a Royal Navy convoy, which seeks to protect the ship from German U-boats.
On the fifth day from shore, the ship’s captain, following safety protocol, dismisses the naval convoy.  Unfortunately, the Benares, along with other boats in the civilian convoy, are torpedoed by German U-boats that night. Of the Benares’ 406 passengers, 253 died as a result of the attack and the sinking of the ship. And of the 90 child evacuees, only 13 survive.
Ken Sparks is one of those survivors. He and five other evacuee children, two adult escorts, one adult paying passenger, five British sailors and 32 Lascars (“Asian sailors…hired to work on European ships” (p. 297)) find themselves aboard Lifeboat 12, the only lifeboat successfully launched from the Benares that night. Although the 46 passengers in Lifeboat 12 survived the sinking of the Benares, they now must survive the open sea in a 30 foot lifeboat as they wait for rescue.
Through Hood’s powerful, poignant and purposeful verse readers can, through the eyes of Ken Sparks, experience the eight days that Lifeboat 12 bobbed on the turbulent open waters waiting for discovery and rescue. Their supplies were meager. Water was strictly rationed, as was food, the distractions were few, and the weather was harsh. Aboard Lifeboat 12 Ken witnesses humankind at its best and its worst. He observes men crumple under duress, a woman weave tales to distract, comfort and nourish, boys who endure the impossible and painful, and men forced into situations beyond their abilities who grow before his eyes. And, unbeknownst to him at the time, Ken undergoes changes as well and perhaps is the only one who can save them all.
LIFEBOAT 12 is an important book about a little known historical event with broad genre and audience appeal. I believe that LIFEBOAT 12 is a book for readers of all ages. It also has the power to captivate readers of historical fiction, adventure stories, survival stories, novels in verse and nonfiction. In addition, Hood’s backmatter, including photographs, is thorough enough that LIFEBOAT 12 could be used as primary or supplemental material in social studies/history classrooms.

Reviewed by Aimee Rogers on December 12, 2018

Lifeboat 12
by Susan Hood