Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The watch that ends the night: voices from the Titanic, by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2011)

Release date:  October 11, 2011

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

What else could be left to say about the Titanic, we could wonder.  A quick WorldCat search for juvenile historical fiction about the Titanic turned up dozens of titles, including quite a few coming out in 2011.  I must be one of the few people around, at least over the age of 30, who never saw the wildly popular 1997 movie, but I was curious to read this new teen novel by poet Allan Wolf about the 1912 disaster at sea.  I am a huge fan of his 2004 novel, New Found Land:  Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, which tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition in free verse from the point of view of fourteen participants, including Lewis’ dog, Seaman.  

Wolf’s new novel is in much the same format, alternating between the points of view of various crew and passengers of different social classes, including the ship’s captain, baker, wireless man, and the ship lookout; millionaire John Jacob Astor, who’s sailing with his teenage bride; the famous “unsinkable” Molly Brown; a beautiful young Lebanese immigrant sailing with her brother; a cardshark; a violinist from the ship’s orchestra; and even a rat and the iceberg itself.  In his research, Wolf sifted through the 2,000 passengers and crew to identify 24 different compelling and diverse stories for his narrative.  Each character writes in his or her own style, including the poems of the rat, which are written in concrete verse, and the poems are clearly labeled with the name of the character as a heading so threre’s no confusion for the readers.  The groups of poems are separated into different chapters, with the story told largely chronologically.

The novel begins ominously enough with the first poem coming from John Snow, an undertaker from Halifax who journeyed to recover bodies strewn in the Titanic wreckage.  We then skip to the prelude, where we meet the various colorful characters who will participate in the drama, beginning with the ship’s rat.  Even the iceberg in this book takes on a vivid personality through Wolf’s skillful writing.  Although we know the outcome from the outset, Wolf manages to create an atmosphere of suspense throughout, particularly as we see the many messages sent through the wireless from other ships warning of the massive icebergs in the vicinity.  Wolf takes the time to establish the atmosphere of “frivolous amuseument” on the giant ship, as the passengers promenade on the decks, partake of gourmet cuisine, and descend the grand staircases.  Even those in third class enjoy food better than they have ever eaten before.  

When the ship collides with the iceberg, the shipbuilder and captain quickly realize that the situation is hopeless and the ship will go down within two hours at the most.  The captain muses poignantly:

My God.

I was giving out orders left and right.  But I really had no plan...
Our only hope was an orderly evacuation and a passing ship,
a ship very close to give us time to shuttle the passengers...
Of course I knew the precise number of people on board.
I had signed the paperwork myself.  My responsibility.
Two thousand two hundred and eight souls.
Twenty boats.
The mathematical disparity stung my brain.
Regardless of how the rest of the story turned out,
I knew it must begin with filling the lifeboats with as many souls as possible.

We witness the evacuation of women and children, first class, then second class, and when the captain called for third class, there were no more boats.  As the ship collapses, passengers fall into the frigid Arctic water, and the poems evoke the horror of the sounds of those who die quickly of hypothermia as well as those who tried to climb onto the lifeboats.  Extensive back matter provides biographical details about each of the passengers included in the book, as well as an excellent bibliography.

Our fascination with this tragedy shows no signs of abating; in some ways it’s the ultimate man against nature story, as well as a tragedy of Greek epic proportions.  2012 is the centennial of the disaster, and not only should we expect numerous books, TV documentaries, and more, you can even take a cruise recreating the voyage. (one of the two cruises being offered is already sold out!)  The cruise includes a special memorial service at the exact spot of the sinking, the opportunity to wear period costumes and experience a selection of food and drinks served on the Titanic, themed entertainment, and a stop in Halifax to visit the cemeteries where victims are buried.  Apparently recreation of the collision with the iceberg is not included.  

What is your favorite book about the Titanic?  Please leave a comment with your response.  


Anonymous said...

I'm very intrigued by the chance to experience the Titanic through free verse! Very interesting way of writing a historical fiction! Thanks for sharing!!

Rebecca Herman said...

I *love* historical fiction about the Titanic and am excited that so many are coming out in 2011/2012 because of the anniversary. I actually wanted to go on that cruise but ugh, too expensive. I have this one in my reading pile and need to read it soon.

Allison said...

Great review! I really like your insights on this one. It caught my eye when it arrived at my library, so I read it quickly before sending it to processing. I was riveted by some parts, yet I felt other parts went on too long. The text was surprisingly dense for a book in verse. Overall, I liked it and would recommend it to teens at my library.

On another note, isn't the cover amazing?