Book Review : The Watch That Ends the Night

The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf. 2011.

The news of the sinking of the Titanic shook the world, and now, almost a century later, the event still fascinates people.  And with the 100th anniversary of the disaster coming up in April 2012, I’ve been excited to see a number of new titles, both fiction and nonfiction, about the doomed ship.

The events in The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf begin before the Titanic sets sail.  The subtitle—Voices from the Titanic—exactly describes this free-verse novel,  which is told by 24 different people and objects that played a part in the days before and after the sinking.  Some of the voices are from well-known historical people—Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line, John Jacob Astor, Margaret “Molly” Brown, wireless operator Harold Bride.  Others are not so well known or are fictional, and they include crew members and passengers from all levels of society, and even the rats on board ship.

And the iceberg itself has a voice, as it is “calved…with a splash in Baffin Bay. / Since then I’ve traveled southward many weeks, / for now that my emergence is complete, / there is a certain ship I long to meet.”

Most accounts of the Titanic disaster end with the rescue of the survivors by the RMS Carpathia, or with their arrival back on land.  But Wolf takes us back to the disaster site with the ship MacKay-Bennett as its crew recovers the bodies.  John Snow, a local undertaker from Halifax, Nova Scotia, traveled on this ship, in order to try to identify the bodies and to keep track of their personal items.  Personally, I have never read—or thought—about how the bodies were retrieved, but Wolf gives Snow a chance to be heard.

The Watch That Ends the Night is very readable, but intense.  I have such a love-hate relationship with the story of the Titanic:  it is fascinating, exciting, dramatic…and so sad.  When my older son Alex was almost 4, I read him a book about glaciers (we received a book each month in the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series), which talked about icebergs and mentioned the Titanic.  We also happened to watch the National Geographic video about the disaster and Bob Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic’s resting place.  Alex was fascinated and would watch the video every day, but I never got used to it.  (Alex watched it so much that it didn’t help for me to go into another room, because I knew what was happening from hearing the music.)  But this book was mesmerizing, and I read it in two days, all 456 pages, including author’s notes.

These notes at the end of the book provide a huge bonus for those who want facts.  Over twenty pages of notes explain what happened to the owners of the voices as well as the fates of all historical people mentioned in the text.  The Morse code alphabet is provided, with translations of the messages that are coded in the text.  There are several pages of miscellaneous facts about the Titanic…everything from how many rivets were on the ship to the number of dogs aboard (and that survived) to the time it took for the ship to reach the ocean floor*.   (Note to Mackin Collection Development staff:  Guess what the trivia questions at our next staff meeting will be about.)  And finally, pages and pages of resources are included for those who want to learn more.

In his author’s note, Wolf states that his aim in writing this book was not to present history, but to present humanity.  The people whose voices we hear “lived and breathed and loved.  They were as real as you or me. They could have been any one of us.  And that is why, after a century, the Titanic still fascinates.”

Blogger:  Tracey L.

*3,000,000 rivets, 12 dogs (3 survived), 30 minutes