David Dyer’s Masterful Historical Retelling of the Titanic disaster: A debut novel?!

midnightThe Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian by David Dyer
Published on April 5, 2016
St. Martin’s Press
Source: ARC from St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley
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“As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that theTitanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. … The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.” Source: St. Martin’s Press.

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Review
So we’ve all heard the story of the sinking of the Titanic (even if our only exposure was through Kate & Leo)- but did you know that the historical record shows that many more lives could have been saved if only a nearby ship, the Californian, had responded to the Titanic‘s distress signals?

David Dyer’s impressive debut novel offers a plausible retelling of these events. Brimming with details from official reports, newspaper accounts, and other evidence, this meticulously researched novel not only offers us an account of what happened, but illustrates how conflicting psychologies, miscommunication, and misunderstanding may converge with tragic results.

What Happened: The night of April 14-15, 1912, as the Titanic was sinking, it sent out eight white rockets, a known distress signal, to a ship it observed moored nearby (within 20 miles): theCalifornian. Meanwhile, on this other vessel, the second officer reported rocket sightings to his captain, who was below deck in his cabin. The captain gruffly replied that he wanted more information, then returned to bed, as the second officer considered his duty done, and took no further actions. And so, 1500 people that most agree could have been saved, died.

Dyer’s Approach: Dyer weaves a masterful story that maintains tension by focusing on characters’ psychology; the essential question here is not, what happened, although that in itself is quite fascinating and accurately portrayed, but, why did it happen? WHY would a respected, resourceful, tested leader like the captain stay below deck as his second officer relayed spotting rockets? WHY would a second officer, so ardently passionate about his calling, capitulate to the situation without taking further action? WHY didn’t somebody DO something?

The answers The Midnight Watch offers (or plausible explanations in the very least) are profoundly complex and as old as the story of people. There are no villains here – not even the captain – rather, there are only conflicting personalities, born of different backgrounds, with diverging dispositions, who do not understand each other, who do not listen, who do not always think about potential catastrophic consequences to a moment’s inaction. It is a sad story indeed, because it is all too common. Yes, in this instance, these men’s momentary exhaustion, exasperation with each other, and unwillingness to listen led to consequences affecting the lives of 1500 people. But much more broadly than that, it seems like this is the story of humankind-both micro and macroscopic, period: conflicts born of misunderstandings, ill-will bred of miscommunication, hate and cowardice born of fear…

Other good stuff: The writing is beautiful – not mind-blowingly creative, but moving, poignant, and not at all self-conscious or awkward. Also, I loved the angle and other historical details: chapters alternate between the Californian’s crew (third person) and a journalist in NYC/Boston writing about the events (first person). In the process, we learn a bit about the publishing world, reporting, and about life in Boston and on a ship during that era. There’s Morse, excitement over telegraphs, and even a bit about a zealous Congress eager to investigate.

Conclusion: A mesmerizing tale, a masterful psychological inquiry and meticulously researched historical retelling.

Why only 4 hearts? I liked pretty much everything about this book, and even loved parts of it (ah, the psychological explanation!). But I reserve 5-ratings for books I find particularly genius, creative, masterpieces of their genre, or important in some other way. The Midnight Watch is excellent historical fiction, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it on my list of books to absolutely insist that others read.

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