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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Watch That Ends the Night,written by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2011. $25.00 ages 12 annd up

"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 this story turned out,
I knew it must begin with filling the lifeboats with as many souls as possible."

I might say 'Impressive!' or 'Astounding!' or even 'Brilliant!'

I could fill this post with quotes from a series of voices that speak through the pages of this remarkable new book about the maiden voyage and the sinking of Titanic. But, I want you to read it for yourself and know the real pleasure of revisiting a time in history, and an event  that has been shared in a variety of books over the years. None that I have read approach the story as Allan Wolf has chosen to tell poetry and honoring the voices of some of the ship's real passengers. Of course, it is fiction; but Allan Wolf has done his research and shares intimate knowledge of the tragedy in the voices of the people he has chosen to help him tell it.

We are less than four months from the 100th anniversary of the event, and there have been (and will be) new books published about it. This is a book that I could not just read and then move on to another. I read it, and reread passages and then stopped before I was done in order to prepare myself for its ending. Of course, we all know the ultimate result. Allan Wolf offers a guide at the back of the book to talk about the real story of the voices he has shared. I read the histories and then read them again. I was not ready to leave this book, and I know I will go back to read many parts again. 

To say he is adept at creating his characters in poetry is another one of those understatements. In fact, he has taken a familiar story and made it unique and sparkling. The verse is exemplary, the voices fully realized and powerful, the characters chosen from all walks of life and social strata (both for the passengers and the crew). The voices within these hierarchies parallel each other. Their reasons for boarding the ship are many, their experiences varied and there are 24 of them. I thought it might be difficult to keep track of so many, but each character is carefully drawn and the voice never wavers. The author even gave voice to an insatiable rat and the iceberg...disturbing and chilling, to say the least.

Of course, on the Titanic, even third class isn't too bad:

"Just two decks down, in ring number three:
watch as the third-class masses eat better aboard Titanic
than they ever have before or ever will again.
Ragout of beef, potatoes, pickles and apricots,
fresh bread and butter, currant buns and tea.
All of it on simple and durable earthenware, with no design,
as plain and blank as their unknown futures."

The tale is told in seven watches, each describing a part of the journey. At the end of each, the undertaker gives voice to the aftermath, the search for bodies, and the clinical data needed to identify those bodies found:

"Finally the dead have crossed the Atlantic.
Finally the dead have completed their journey. '
Finally the dead are allowed to disembark.
Thirty horse-drawn hearses, lined up at Purdy's Wharf,
patiently wait as the first-class bodies are brought off first.
Then second. Then third. Classified in death as in life.
Only the horses speak their solemn nickers
as they climb the steep ascent from the docks
up North Street to the Mayflower Curling Rink."

And I will leave you with Allan Wolf's reason for writing this wondrous book:

But my aim in writing The Watch That Ends the Night was not to present history. My aim was to present humanity. The people represented in this book lived and breathed and loved. They were as real as you and me. They could have been any one of us.
And that is why, after a century, the Titanic still fascinates."

Bravo, Mr. Wolf!

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