My colleague Lisa asked me the other day for a Titanic book recommendation.
Easy, I said. The Watch that Ends the Night.
Lisa has a daughter in upper elementary school who is an avid reader, and I think she'd like this book, too.
This is what I said to Lisa in an e-mail:
It's the best Titanic book I've read so far, a verse novel with poems--very free-verse, very readable--in the voices of people on the ship . . . plus the iceberg (!) and a rat! The library has it. It's officially a Young Adult book, but reviews say that younger folks like it, and I loved it (I don't usually like "YA" books).
Yes, this book includes poetry in the voice of a ship's rat! I think that was one reason I decided to try it out (that, and I got a recommendation from my friend Jean, who is a children's/YA librarian, and whose taste I trust).
We owned pet rats for a while, and I do love them!
They are fun, intelligent, affectionate little creatures. So when I saw that a ratty's voice began and ended this book, I had to read it.
The rat poems were, to me, a sign of how wonderful this book is. They show that Allan Wolf has done his research and written both intelligently and movingly. Just look at the first poem:
The Ship's Rat
Follow the food
Follow the rats
Follow the rats
Follow the food.
OK, I don't think I got the spacing quite right, but Allan Wolf DID get the rat right! The acknowledgements say that he did spend some time with ratties.
The rest of the poems in this telling are in the voices of Titanic passengers and crew, from Bruce Ismay to John Jacob Astor to a stoker (coal-shoveler) to Fredrick Fleet, who was on lookout when the iceberg was spotted.
Some of the poems delve more deeply into characters' lives and thoughts. These are the ones that tell the stories of Thomas Andrews, the ship builder; Frankie Goldsmith, a child on the ship; Harold Bride, one of the wireless operators; and Jamila Nicola-Yarrad, a refuge girl of 14. And there's more information about all these people--real Titanic people--in a fascinating appendix.
Interspersed through the novel is the story of the undertaker, John Snow, who goes out in the ship Mackay Bennett, to retrieve the bodies of those who were lost. This is what he says when he sees the sight:
Those are no seagulls at all. Those are bodies.
More bodies. Each one waiting in a bright white vest.
My God. My God. My God.
Bodies scattered for miles in every direction.
Bodies as far as my indifferent eyes can see.
But don't think that this book is a total downer, because it's not! Lovely things happen--the teenage refugee Jamila finds her first love, the adventurous little boy Frankie discovers Dragon's Blood, and the baker Charles Joughin notices a very clever rat scuttling about. . . And it's all believable: Allan Wolf really did his research--on all the people whose stories he told, and on the Titanic and its sinking as well.
Still, this book's power comes from the insightful and moving way it makes this event come alive through the voices of those who were there. It helps readers--young and old--understand the haunting story a bit better. I think poetry is a fitting genre for the story of the Titanic.
I hope you'll read it!