Saturday, June 29, 2013

342 (2013 #26). The Watch That Ends the Night

by Allan Wolf
read by Michael Page, Phil Gigante, Christopher Lane, Laural Merlington, and Angela Dawe

I purchased this audiobook for my library's collection because it won the 2012 Audie Award for Distinguished Achievement in Production, and was a nominee for the award for Multi-Voiced Performance. This audiobook is absolutely incredible, and I can't recommend it enough.

We're all familiar with the story of the Titanic, but poet Allan Wolf creates suspense by focusing on people and not so much the disaster itself.  Subtitled "Voices from the Titanic," the book has 25 narrators, 20 of them being real passengers or crew on the Titanic.  The other five include a ship's rat, the iceberg itself, and a (real) undertaker from the aftermath.  The narrations of the latter proceed each of the nine sections of the story, a prelude and postlude, as well as the seven "watches" of a traditional ship duty system. These span the period from April 1, 1912, when the Titanic prepared to sail, through April 18, 1912, when the rescue ship Carpathia docked in New York City. The title of the book comes from a verse of the hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," sung at a religious service on board the Titanic on the Sunday it struck the iceberg.

Laural Merlington and Angela Dawe voice the two female passengers, as well as the two-voice poems about the first-class and third-class promenade (some of the few rhyming verses in this work; most is free verse).  Merlington also voices the Iceberg (the most "poetic" voice in the novel, written entirely in iambic pentameter).  This means Michael Page, Phil Gigante, and Christopher Lane handle the other 22 male narrators among the three of them, including the ship's rat (which sometimes provided a bit of levity in an otherwise sad tale).  These three narrators do a good job distinguishing their myriad characters.  The fact that each character's part begins with his/her name and role helps.

I was riveted listening to this audiobook.  I listen during my commute, and there were days I didn't want to stop to go into my office or my home at the end of the work day!  I think it's because I wanted to know whether lesser-known characters lived or died.

It's hard to pick a favorite character.  The rat sounds just like I'd imagine, the postmen (I didn't know the Titanic had postmen!) sort and shuffle and slot the mail.

Well-known Titanic victims and survivors are here, such as Captain E. J. Smith, millionaire John Jacob Astor, "unsinkable Molly" Margaret Brown ("the socialite,), shipbuilder Thomas Andrews, and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay.  Wolf presents another side to the stereotypes of these characters and makes them more human.

Even more interesting, though, were real characters I'd never heard of before:  immigrants like Olaus Abelseth, Jamila Nicola-Yarred, and Frankie Goldsmith; con man George Brereton, second-class passenger Louis Hoffman (aka Michel Navratil, kidnapping his children), and various crew members - the baker, the postman, the musician, the boiler stoker, the lookout, the navigator, the junior officer, telegraphists - who provided much insight into the operations of the ship.

Different formats are used throughout the book.  Abelseth's pieces are mostly in the form of letters to a girlfriend back in Norway.  Most sections of Harold Bride, "the spark" - the junior wireless man on the Titanic - begin with a Morse code message (dots and dashes signaled in the audiobook, symbols used in the print version with translations provided at the end).  Actual telegrams sent and received by the Titanic are included, as well as transcriptions of records of bodies and effects found afterwards. 


In an author's note at the end of the book, Allen Wolf said his intention in writing this book "was not to present history, my aim was to present humanity.  The people represented in this book 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." (p. 435)

By far, the most moving poem for me was a (mythical) telegram from the Titanic near the end (page 36), where a message repeating the Titanic's call letters (MGY) and distress calls (the new SOS and the then-standard CQD), "MGY MGY SOS CQD," slowly loses letters as the ship's power supply fluctuates during its sinking, eventually spelling out something else entirely.

I loved Wolf's descriptions of historical fiction in his author's note (page 435):  "history is the birdcage, fiction is the bird," and the process of combining research and story:

Writing a historical novel is like making soup.  You spend a lot of time gathering ingredients, but eventually you've got to start cooking, even if you are missing one or two spices....But if you are a connoisseur of all things Titanic, please be kind to the cook.  And just enjoy the soup.

Despite his stated regrets on not being able to explore all sources and apologies for errors, the book has an impressive end notes section, with 14 pages of notes on the characters, clarifying what is real and what is not (also read on the audiobook), four pages of  "RMS Titanic Miscellany" (also read on the audiobook), and an extensive 10-page bibliography.

I can't say enough good about this book.  Suffice to say I'm ordering the print version of The Watch That Ends the Night for my library as well, and I just bought Wolf's New Found Land, which uses the same format to tell the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Too bad that's not available as an audiobook; I bet it would be excellent.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and interlibrary loan respectively.]

No comments:

Post a Comment