The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Long-time readers of Bookends will remember that I am not a big fan of verse novels or of sad books. So you are probably surprised to see me leading off a review of this door-stopper of a verse novel about an immensely famous disaster. I’m pretty surprised myself but every so often a book comes along that makes me rethink my most curmudgeonly opinions and The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic (Candlewick 2011) is just such a book. I am not only rethinking, I have turned into an outright enthusiast! This book is so good that I have been raving about it to everyone. I really shouldn’t have been surprised because Allan Wolf did this to me before with New Found Land (Candlewick 2004) about the Lewis and Clark Expedition – a book I loved on another subject I have scant interest in. (Truly – had I lived during the westward expansion, I would have NEVER left Boston)
Well, I digress. Wolf has done it again. Has there been any subject more explored than the Titanic? Yet Wolf takes it on and far outpaces the pack. Audacious, inventive, unique, moving, and compelling are just a few of the descriptors that apply to this monumental book. Wolf uses 24 distinct voices to chronicle the journey of the supposedly unsinkable ship. Some are historical figures such as E.J. Smith, the ship’s captain, Olaus Abelseth, a Norwegian immigrant who eventually testified before the Senate inquiry, Margaret Brown, a wealthy socialite and Thomas Andrews, owner of the firm that built the Titanic. Some are skillful invention such as a ship’s rat and the iceberg itself which serves as a sort of ponderous Greek chorus. Divided into “watches,” the poetry is in beautifully crafted verse interspersed with some clever concrete poems. The rat’s words skitter across the mostly white page, the iceberg’s lines become shorter and shorter as it melts and the “Marconi-grams” provide staccato information on external conditions and ship communications. Wolf packs the poems with foreshadowing references that burrow into the reader’s imagination and intensify the sense of the looming disaster. Wolf has done oceans of research and that is reflected in the brilliantly realized mini-society aboard the Titanic – a microcosm of the time – and in the fascinating author’s notes. The notes include biographical sketches that include the post-sinking lives of the survivors, a bibliography and miscellaneous amazing statistics about the Titanic. Did you know that the Titanic was stocked with 7,000 heads of lettuce and 7,500 pounds of bacon and ham or that 22 married couples survived together?
I’ve already raved on far too long but take this curmudgeon’s advice – this is a book you must not miss!
Cindy: The book opens with a report from the undertaker responsible for dealing with hundreds of dead bodies pulled from the sea in the days following the tragedy. His report that he prefers the dead to the sea…he finds them more predictable…sets the tone for the story that unfolds.
The passengers are all aboard. The papers are all signed.
Everyone has found his berth. The sun is going down.
The hard part is over. The rest is all about sailing a straight line.
Captain Smith’s words and the other foreshadowing that Wolf incorporates keeps the tension building even though we know how this story will end. The well-known troubles with the trip are recounted here…too few lifeboats, a calm moonless night that affected the lookouts’ ability to see the iceberg until it was too late to alter the ship’s course, the mysterious ship that did not respond. But Wolf embellishes the tale with fleshed out characters…some real and some of his imagination. One boy, Frankie, is fascinated with dragons and the dragon imagery is used effectively thoughout the telling…as is the ship builder’s bee hive analogy, and the gambler’s cons:
None of us believed the mighty Titanic would sink,
least of all me. The largest and most grand ship in the world,
sinking on its first voyage while the whole world watched?
The odds against it were much too high.
I have to mention the bookmaking. Starting with the jacket…be sure to open up the book and notice the iceberg on the back cover and how the art mirrors the sinking ship on the front cover. The typesetting on this massive book would have been enough without all the special features, the telegraphs, the skittering rat poems, the undertaker reports, the fading text and the jumbled lines of poetry as the ship lurched port to starboard and aft to bow as it went down. Candlewick did a beautiful job.
Next April 14-15th will mark the 100th anniversary of this disaster. I saw a movie preview last week (while seeing Hugo) for an April re-release of Titanic, this time in 3-D. Be sure to have this book in your collection to be ready for the Titaniacs who will be looking for more on this timeless story.