Reviewed by Randy Bryan Bigham
The Titanic is for kids, too. That’s the hope of acclaimed poet Allan Wolf, although his latest work of children’s fiction, a novel in verse called The Watch That Ends the Night (Candlewick Press/$21.99), will appeal equally to adults, even the most meticulous of Titaniacs. In the form of mostly non-rhyming poetry, Wolf presents the ship and the world of 1912 with an attention to detail and a fluid style all readers will appreciate. His lines are more like lyrics, accessible but powerful, and they paint a vibrant picture of an event that couldn’t be more suited to an artistic treatment of this kind and scale. Wolf’s true virtuosity is in framing the personalities of the real-life and fictional characters he has selected to bring the story to haunting life. Fatherly Captain Smith, gutsy Molly Brown, oblivious John Jacob Astor – each is better-sketched and more layered than these familiar names have been treated before. Other victims and survivors portrayed in the book include such lesser known but equally fascinating folk as immigrant Olaus Abelseth, radio operator Harold Bride, violinist Jock Hume and two little boys who will captivate the reader, Frankie Goldsmith and Lolo Navratil. Some of the best verses are those devoted to young Frankie and his shipboard pals. It’s unfortunate there were so few women in the roll call of interesting main characters Wolf chose to spotlight; apart from Molly Brown, the only other female profiled is 14 year old refugee Jamila Nicola Yarred.
Yet the fatal iceberg is among the voices that flesh out the story, as are a colony of ship’s rats who find themselves caught up in the course of events. In the spirit of Harry Potter and Twilight these scenes are alternately ghoulish and magical. The iceberg in its cleverly-nuanced, specter-like role almost salivates over its historical duty to slay the great Titanic: “The ice will have its pick of human hearts/As soon as fair Titanic plays her part.” Interspersed with SOS messages, contemporary newspaper excerpts, and reports from an undertaker aboard the recovery vessel Mackay-Bennett, The Watch That Ends the Night records the lives and deaths of Titanic passengers and crew with a sensitivity in keeping with the well-researched historical fiction evinced in Wolf’s award-winning New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery.
The poet’s commemoration of the Titanic disaster is a unique account among the numerous books scheduled for release in the run up to April 15, 2012, the centenary of the sinking, and lovers of poetry and Titanica alike will revel in its pages. Although the majority of verses don’t rhyme, there are several good instances of traditional poetry, as in a depiction of wealthy passengers strolling about the decks in their finery: “Inhale the richness of the air/Luxurious furs are de rigueur/Parisian skirt hems. Feet well shod/It’s time to walk the promenade.” Wolf adds a similarly light-hearted snapshot of steerage life: “Children clamor. Infants wail/Nappies dry on poop deck rails/’Give us a song! ‘Come now let’s dance!’/A chat. A smoke. A game of chance.”
A riveting passage pays homage to Jock Hume playing to the end on the fateful night with band leader Wallace Hartley:
But the surreal quality of our task became more pronounced
with every launched lifeboat. The more tilted the deck
the more desperately and passionately we played.
As the ship sank lower, I sank deeper into the music.
Little Frankie Goldsmith’s memory of the sounds of the ship sinking and the cries of the drowning, as his mother clutches him to her chest, is beautiful and heart-breaking. So are the pages detailing the scenes in the water after the Titanic goes down. From the thrashing throng of humanity – over 1,500 people – survivors in nearby lifeboats hear individual screams in the dark: “Stay together!” “Someone, please…” “Where are you?” “Let go of me!” “Hold my hand!” “O, Father who art in Heaven…”
General readers won’t know it, but the Titaniphile will notice a few minor errors of fact in this book. Some are matters of artistic license, which Wolf explains in his Notes section. One inaccuracy, caught after the book went to print, is that Captain Smith wasn’t at the helm during the Titanic’s sea-trials. The author plans to correct this in future editions.
None of these mistakes dim the brightness of Allan Wolf’s moving, intimate interpretation of the Titanic and the lives of the men, women and children who sailed with her into history. Even the book’s title, taken from the hymn, “O, God Our Help in Ages Past,” and sung by passengers at chapel the day of the disaster, is a tribute to those whose deaths at sea nearly a century ago have not been forgotten:
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun