‘Her Storied Past’ – A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner
When novelist Susan Meissner visited RMS Queen Mary, a British ocean liner built by Cunard in the 1930s but now a hotel and visitor attraction moored in Long Beach, California, she was immediately inspired by the ship’s ‘storied past.’
The ship first left Southampton, England on May 27th 1936. A luxury liner, built to attract the richest and most glamorous transatlantic travellers, she was fitted out with five dining areas and lounges, two cocktail bars, two swimming pools, a grand ballroom, a squash court and a small hospital. Famous passengers include Bob Hope and Clark Gable, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Winston Churchill. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, RMS Queen Mary was put into war service. She was painted grey, refitted to carry troops and became the largest and fastest troopship in the British Navy, able to carry 16,000 troops at a time.
Of particular interest to Meissner, however, was the ship’s post-war role in transporting war brides. Meissner’s sympathy for these women is strong: “Thousands of European women married American servicemen stationed overseas during World War II, and when the war ended it was no small feat to reunite them with their husbands in the States. Nearly all of these women had survived five years of relentless bombings, deprivation and loss. And they boarded these ships for America – a place they’d never been – to join husbands that they hadn’t seen in over a year. All of those details made me want to write about them.”
A Bridge Across the Ocean is the result, the story of three women all connected to the Queen Mary. Two are war brides, Annaliese and Simone, with very different reasons for travelling across the Atlantic. Both are hopeful for the future, but scarred by the war years and only one of them with disembark when the ship docks in New York Harbor. Although neither character is based on real people, Meissner met and has become good friends with one war bride, June Boots Allen, in the course of her research. June was eighteen years old, and a new mother, when she emigrated to America on RMS Queen Mary in February 1946. “June was my go-to for all research questions related to the five-day voyage that these brides undertook, from what it was like at the registration station near Southampton to the joy of eating fresh oranges for the first time in five years to what the bands on the dock were playing as the brides sailed into New York Harbor.”
The third woman in Meissner’s novel is Brette, a modern day character with a gift for the paranormal. Through her, Meissner taps into the rich ghostly history of the Queen Mary. When Brette visits the ship in Long Beach, she feels compelled to investigate the stories of Annaliese and Simone and it is true that the retired liner attracts thousands of visitors every year, many drawn in by its reputation for paranormal activity. The engine room, the first and second class swimming pools, the first class lounge and several first class staterooms are said to be haunted and there have been reports of as many as 160 spirits lurking on board. Before writing A Bridge Across the Ocean, Meissner would have described herself as a skeptic on such matters but she may have changed her position. She says, “I asked a great many people during the research phase if they believed in ghosts and why, and I was honestly floored by the number of responses I got from highly intellectual, grounded people who had experienced something ghostly that had no explanation…. When I was interviewing the commodore of the Queen Mary, I asked him what he thought of all the reports of ghost sightings aboard the Queen and the ghost tours that the ship offers. He shrugged and said, “Well…” and I thought he was going to say, “it sells tickets, and that extra income keeps this old ship in good repair.” But that’s not what he said. He said, “Well, things have happened on the ship that no one can explain. They’ve even happened to me.””
So how did Meissner juggle these different stories from the past with ghostly sightings from the present? A Bridge Across the Ocean is tightly structured, gradually revealing the storied pasts of her characters. Meissner offers fascinating insight into her craft, explaining that she wrote each individual’s story separately and then took advice from a fellow author to complete the process: “It wasn’t until I was finished with the book that I laid out all the printed chapters on the living room floor and began to piece them together so that the individual chapters became interspersed. When I was done, each chapter got its new number. Mary Kubica told me this was how she pieced the chapters of The Good Girl together. I knew when she said this was how she constructed that story that this was the only way that would work for A Bridge Across the Ocean.”
Tantalizingly, Susan Meissner might not be finished writing about the Queen Mary. She explains: “The placards below decks that feature the names of all the crew and passengers who had the misfortune to die aboard the Queen during the years she sailed list only fifty-some names. But paranormal experts will say there are more than 100 ghosts on the Queen Mary. That means, if we want to make the leap that ghosts do exist, and the even larger leap that they are in fact aboard the Queen Mary, that means more than half chose to come there. To me, that fact is a story begging to be written, even if it is completely fanciful.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of Charlatan, a tale of intrigue and poison in 17th century Paris.