Wolf, Allan. The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic. Candlewick Press, 2011. 465p. Grades 7-12. Poetry/Historical Fiction. (YALSA BFYA 2012).
There is a cast of 25 different characters, which are followed starting from a few days before the Titanic sets sail to a few days after the ship sinks. The multiple characters cross class and ethnic boundaries, giving different perspectives of what it was like to watch or go down with the unsinkable ship. All of the characters have a story, but none of them have a significant plot, it is the combined effort of all of the characters that create the unique blend of poems that build the novel.
Review: I was originally hesitant when starting The Watch that Ends the Night. I have never truly enjoyed a novel of poems. And then I picked up this book and it was huge and I kept thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” Wolf writes the story of the Titanic from the perspective of 25 different people. In those 25 he also includes the iceberg and a ship rat. He uses poetry, letters, notes, Morse code and other techniques to bring the emotion of the voyage to light. Because of the variety, this would be a good introduction into poetry. When the reader comes into the story knowing the ending, it is hard for the author to keep the reader actively engaged. However, Wolf manages to provide rich characterization for 25 different perspectives to keep the reader wanting more.
The only downside to the multiple perspectives is that it is confusing at the beginning. It takes about 70 pages to get accustomed to switching voices after each poem and get to know characters long enough to become invested in the story. The slow start may discourage readers new to the genre, but if they can stick it out they will be rewarded. As the novel continues, the reader understands the different social pressures and what is guiding each character. At the end of the novel Wolf includes a list of the characters and explains what liberties he took with the characters and what happened to the ones who survived. This was one of the most interesting parts of the novel. It was interesting to read what happened to the people you now really care about it. It was also refreshing to read a historical fiction novel that gave sources and used people who actually lived through the event.
On of the best tactics Wolf uses is the narrative of the Undertaker, the rat and the Iceberg. These three characters give gravity or humor (depending on which character) to the plot line the entire novel. The undertaker may be my favorite character. Wolf uses the undertaker’s report and thoughts at the beginning of each chapter and is written from the present. He keeps the reader firmly in reality. Wolf comes right out at the beginning of the novel and says, “We all know what happens, lets acknowledge this and move on to the novel.” This technique saved the novel and sets it apart.