Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Watch That Ends The Night by Alan Wolf

Alan Wolf's The Watch That Ends The Night is a uniquely crafted novel that tells the story of the Titanic tragedy in both rhyming and free verse, using twenty-three voices of those on Titanic. Wolf uses real people from the tragedy - those who were on the passenger list - and successfully builds an engaging storyline for each through poetry. These stories, when woven, together not only tell the larger story of the maiden voyage and the sinking of the Titanic, but also convey a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy on a personal level; the fathers never to be seen again, the lovers lost, the new life in America never to be realized.

The many voices include those of immigrants such as Jamila Nicola-Yarred and socialites such as John Jacob Astor and Margaret (Molly) Brown, Bruce Ismay, the director and head of the White Star Line;  and Thomas Andrews, the chief naval architect at Harlan and Wolff ship builders. Also included are many different Titanic crew members including Captain E. J. Smith known as "the Storm King", a stoker, Junior Office Harold Lowe,  wireless operator, Harold Bride; and Frederick Fleet, the lookout. Each  voice offers the reader a different perspective on sailing the Titanic, on life in the early 20th century and on the tragedy. These many voices make the storytelling realistic and appealing.

Added to the human voices are those of the Iceberg and a ship rat. The Iceberg is portrayed as a malevolent entity whose purpose is to meet with a ship - seeking out human hearts! We learn its history, from its birth in Greenland, its thousand year existence to its calving off the glacier and its ocean voyage southward.

I am the ice. I see tides ebb and flow.
I've watched civilizations come and go,
give birth, destroy, restore, be gone, begin.
My blink of an eye is humankind's tortoise slow,
Today's now is tomorrow's way back when.....

I am the ice. I've seen the ebb and flow.
I watched as Abraham and Moses spoke.
I watched the prophets met with wine or stone.
I watched as Christ was nailed upon the cross.....

I am the ice. I've seen the ebb and flow.
Conceived by water, temperature, and time,
gestating within Greenland's glacial womb,
I carved out massive valleys as I moved.
At last the frozen river made its way
and calved me with a splash in Baffin Bay.
Since I've traveled southward many weeks,
for now that my emergence is complete,
there is a certain ship I long to meet.

Especially poignant is the voice of the undertaker, John Snow, who sailed on the cable ship, Mackay-Bennett, out of Halifax, Nova Scotia to collect the bodies of Titanic's victims. John Snow's poems capture the horror sailors experienced when they arrived at the site of the sinking.

I turn again to the far-off flock of gulls --
smudges of white floating on the green waves --
and I admit to myself what I knew at the first sight of them:

Those are no seagulls at all. Those are bodies.

More bodies. Each one waiting in a bright white vest.
My God. My God. My God.
Bodies scattered for miles, in every direction.
Bodies as far as my indifferent eyes can see.

Many of the poems use the element of foreshadowing mingled with irony, hinting at the coming tragedy. Wolf also uses concrete poetry with Thomas Andrews, Titanic's shipbuilder, to convey, typographically the sinking of the Titanic. Another poem, with its random words in the center of two pages, suggests the terror and confusion of people as they drown in the icy waters.

The novel is divided into seven watches, the seventh being "The watch that ends the night", which covers the time the survivors are in the boats and watch in horror, the sinking of the great oceanliner. The novel opens with a  Prelude which tells of preparations to sail and sets the story for many of the characters and closes with a Postlude; Morning which tells of the aftermath of the sinking.

Alan Wolf includes detailed notes at the back of the book,  on each of the voices/characters, all of which were real passengers on the ship, as well as an extensive Titanic bibliography.

The Watch That Ends The Night is brilliantly conceived, and succeeds beyond measure, in capturing the essence of the Titanic tragedy, one hundred years later,  for avid teen readers and interested adult readers alike.

Book Details:
The Watch That Ends The Night by Alan Wolf
Candlewick Press: Massachusetts    2011
466 pp.

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