As a student in the Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am extremely lucky to be able to connect and befriend so many amazing writers. I'm excited to launch VCFA Voices, a somewhat regular feature on the blog with guest posts from current and past students about books, writing, and other various topics in children's and YA lit. You may not have heard of some of these names before, but trust me when I say that you will want to remember them--truly great writers come out of VCFA!
Our brave first guest blog is from my classmate Erin Makela! We met for the first time in July at our very first residency!
Hi, my name is Erin Makela, and I live and teach 7th grade English in Worthington, MN. I am in my first semester of VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I particularly love reading fantasy/sci-fi and historical fiction novels and talking about books with anyone that will listen.
You may be saying, “I have limited time; why should I read this novel?” Great question. The novel does look long (430 pages), but since it is in verse, it doesn’t take as long to read, and there are several things that Wolf does that make his book stand out.
First, he uses twenty-five narrators to tell the story – from the Iceberg and the Ship’s Rat to Captain Smith. And almost all of the people who help to tell the story were actually aboard the Titanic. If you are looking for examples of voice in writing – especially poetry – check out this book.
The second thing Wolf does, and the one I want to talk about is how he creates suspense. Perhaps you are thinking, “But everyone knows the ship sinks. How can an author create suspense?” My thoughts exactly. I have read quite a few Titanic novels, and usually the most suspense I get is from wondering which of the characters, besides the narrator, will survive. That is not the case in The Watch that Ends the Night. The first thing I noticed that added to the suspense was that Wolf never calls Titanic unsinkable. He calls her the “largest”, “great”, “grandest” ship, the “Queen of the Ocean”, but the closest Wolf comes to unsinkable is when Captain Smith says, “I am not so foolish as to call her unsinkable” (Wolf 16). Instead, references are made to impending disaster and death, which I think is much more realistic. Then, as now, long distance travel was a risky business. Every time I board an airplane, I have that moment or two of doubt. I wonder, what if we crash? Would it be land or water that we crash into? Who would tell my family? The narrators in The Watch hint at these feelings and doubts. Junior Officer Lowe worries that half the crew won’t know how to man a lifeboat if the boats are actually needed. John Jacob Astor says, “Titanic awaited me like a tomb” (52). The musicians have an entire conversation on Sunday, hours before the Titanic strikes the iceberg, on the question: “if you were on a sinking ship, what would be your final tune” (231)? This conversation caught me because in less than 100 pages their conversation leaves the realm of theoretical and becomes and actual decision.
One character really brings out the suspense. The Iceberg. The Iceberg, driven by the need to claim human hearts, makes it trip across the ocean to specifically sink the Titanic. At the end of its first poem, it says, “for now that my emergence is complete,/there is a certain ship I long to meet” (7). The Iceberg’s words are sinister as it repeats its desire to sink the Titanic and claim the human hearts within – “The ice will have his pick of human hearts/as soon as fair Titanicplays her part” (87. The iceberg’s poems are also the only ones that rhyme consistently. This gives the poems a beat, which drive the story forward and builds the tension.
The final things that added to the suspense were the two songs that Wolf included. On Sunday, the day that the Titanic will strike the Iceberg, Wolf includes two songs: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “For Those in Peril on the Sea”, which the first- and third-class passengers sing respectively. “O God, Our Help”
speaks of lives being carried away by the flood, of dreams dying at the break of day, and uses the line that gives the novel its title “short as the watch that ends the night” (222). The second song repeats the line “Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,/For those in peril on the sea” (255)! These little bits of foreshadowing – death at daybreak and crying out for help – put you on edge because you know that in a few short hours, many of those singing will be crying out to God from the freezing waters of the Atlantic. And they are completely unaware of this fact. The suspense that Wolf creates through the doubts of the passengers, the voice of the Iceberg, and by including the two songs, will keep you turning pages until long after you should have gone to bed.
So, whether you are a teacher, a Titanic buff, or just looking for a good verse novel, I hope you check out Allan Wolf’s The Watch that Ends the Night. If you do, I would love to hear about your favorite poems from the book!
Thanks so much, Erin!
Has anyone read The Watch that Ends the Night? If not, is there a YA novel in verse that does a good job covering a historical event that you'd recommend?