Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

I'm not going to lie. When I pick up a book that starts with a cast list, I get nervous. Really nervous. I know the book is going to ask a lot of me and I'm going to have to remember who these people are.

Fortunately, Allan Wolf's The Watch that Ends the Night proved me wrong in my worry, which was a huge relief, given this book is written entirely in verse, and the idea of having to suss out multiple characters within a verse novel seemed incredibly daunting.

If the title wasn't enough of a clue, Wolf's novel is a fictionalized account of the sailing of the Titanic in 1912. As much as this is a fictional story, the voices Wolf uses are actually based on real people who were aboard the ship; he offers a really great guide in the back of the novel talking about the personal histories and stories upon which he based his characters, and having been so engrossed in the story, I found myself eager to read the back matter and learn more about the real histories of these people. I note this because it's rare I want to read the back matter. In this case, though, I couldn't get enough because Wolf's book was so well done, he left me desiring more.

I'm not going to offer a summary of this book because it should be fairly obvious what happens and how it all ends. But what's worth noting is how Wolf manages to take a story that's been done and make it entirely new and fresh while also providing some of the strongest written verse I've read in a long time and simultaneously rounding out fully-fleshed characters in a multi-voiced novel. There are 24 characters in this novel, two of which are non-human, including a mouse and the ice burg. The characters range all social classes and statuses, as well as run the range of immigrant experiences. There are those making the trip because they want to get back to America, while there are those making the trip because they're trying to escape to America and freedom from their past in Europe. There are businessmen and there are third-class children, and each of them has a voice and a story they add. Their individual voices each add a layer to the ship and to what the Titanic really was -- much more than a vessel of movement but an entire place and an entire historical moment.

As much as hearing from all the layers of the social landscape was valuable in constructing the story, what I think I liked best was that we also get the entire social stratus of the ship's crew. We have the captain and the navigator (who will tell you their jobs are very, very different), and we also have the shipbuilder, the cook, and the postman. We're going from first class in jobs to third class in jobs, and the parallels to those aboard the ship for their personal reasons are smartly crafted. Since each of these 24 characters gets a chance to talk, as readers, we see how vast the stories and struggles are, and we are momentarily removed from what we know is going to happen to them all. They each speak up and offer the good and the bad, and as readers, we're poised to feel certain things -- we're happy for those on their way for a new opportunity in America and we're disgruntled at the inequality at accommodations, as swindlers get their time in swanky first class and those who so deserve a better life live below decks. Of course, on the Titanic, even third class isn't that awful. At least, that's kind of what we're lead to believe from the characters. We also get the same perspectives from the crew, as the ship builder marvels at what he's done, the captain talks about his vital role in the success of the trip, and the postman and cook offer us the below decks view.

Wolf pulls us into the story immediately, and the story really is that there are 24 stories here. It's not that the ship's going down. At least, it's not in the moments we're not reading from the point of view of the iceberg or reading the voice of the undertaker. In those moments, we're pulled from the drama aboard the Titanic and reminded that indeed, this isn't going to have the resolution we're hoping for as readers. It doesn't take us out of the story but further insists that the story has a multitude of ways it could be told. As action picks up, so does the intensity of the varied voices.

Here's where I point out the biggest problem of the book for me and, I think, for a lot of readers: of the 24 voices, only one is a teenager. She's a refugee, and while her story is compelling, it's a tiny fraction of the entire book. This book features primarily adults, which makes sense, but it leaves me questioning why this is for the young adult audience, aside from the fact this feels like one of those books that would make for an excellent classroom read. That's not a comment meant to denigrate the work, but rather, it's a comment on the strength of the writing and discussion-worthy merit. As a reader, I would have loved more of the teen voices here, as I do think there is a large readership for Titanic-based stories for teenagers, and I think that's only going to be furthered in the next year with the 100th anniversary and re-release of the film.

While I could see how this book might be a slower read for many, I was glued and found myself reading it in just a couple of sittings. The verse propels the action forward because it's tight and varied. Each of the characters has their own style, and it's evident through the way the verse is crafted. I love good poetry, and this was good poetry. It should be obvious this book will appeal to readers who love stories of the Titanic, as well as those who like a good novel in verse. This is an investment, and it's one that pays off in the end. I also think this book has sort of flown under the radar this year in the ya field, and it's one I see having strong Printz potential.

3 comments:

  1. Ugh, book in verse. I just can't get into those at all. Being a slow read doesn't bode well for me either. I'm sad to hear it because this one does sound extremely interesting.

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  2. I'm also sad to hear this as I am very excited for the 100 year "anniversary" for the Titanic. I still think I'll give it a try - but at least my expectations have been lowered.

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  3. I'm not a natural fan of books in verse at all but my love for all things Titanic is going to win out in this case. I just got it from the library so I'm excited to dig in.

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