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April 13, 2012

Of Hollywood, Reality, and Armpit Hair: A Titanic Tale

Posted by vicky

Allan Wolf is an award-winning children's and young adult novelist, poet, educator, and performer. His novels told in verse include NEW FOUND LAND: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery and Zane's Trace. His poetry books include IMMERSED IN VERSE, THE BLOOD-HUNGRY SPLEEN AND OTHER POEMS ABOUT PARTS, and MORE THAN FRIENDS: Poems From Him and Her. Allan is former Educational Director for Poetry Alive!, a national touring company that presents theatrical poetry shows for all ages. He lives in Asheville with his wife and three children and can recite hundreds of poems from memory. In his newest book, THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT: Voices from the Titanic, he evokes twenty-four haunting voices of the Titanic tragedy, as well as the iceberg itself.

Warning! Spoiler Alert: In my latest book, THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT: Voices from the Titanic, the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Of course everybody and his mother knows this. In fact, it’s almost as if we are born knowing this. Titanic is synonymous with tragedy, disaster, and . . . well . . . sinking. Those who walk the decks of the Titanic are doomed. You can almost hear the ominous soundtrack; deep, menacing cellos beneath the thrum of the steam engines.

So if we all know how the story ends, why does the story fascinate us so? Why? I’ll tell you why, because life is all in the details. It’s not where you go, it’s how you get there. When I set out to write about the Titanic, I did not set out to write about history. My intention was to write about humanity. Each of the people aboard the Titanic lived and breathed and loved. They could have been any one of us.
When Titanic sinks, we all sink with it, each and every time.

Which brings me to Titanic, the movie. I cannot stop you from spending your hard earned money to see the 3-D version of James Cameron’s blockbuster. Nor would I try. In fact I’ll urge you to go. I’m a sucker for a romance myself. But as you watch the story unfold, remember this: Jack and Rose are fiction. They never existed in real life.

Remember also that Jack and Rose’s actions are as fictional as they are. That iconic scene in which young Rose is thrusting her face over the big ship’s prow, her arms spread wide, with handsome Jack behind her, scandalously pressing his body against hers? We all know the one I’m talking about. Hollywood allows us to forget that this was a dangerous and highly restricted area where passengers weren’t allowed. Hollywood allows us to forget that these two Edwardian era strangers are conducting themselves like 21st century freshmen at a college Frat party. Hollywood allows us to forget that 2,205 passengers and crew were looking on as an upper-crust lady and a low-brow roust-about made a spectacle of themselves.

And don’t even get me started on that other iconic scene in which Rose poses upon the settee wearing nothing but a (fictional) necklace, her elbow bent Rubenesquely behind her head exposing a perfectly smooth armpit. Hollywood allows us to forget that fashionable women didn’t start shaving their armpits until at least 1914, a good two years after Titanic sank.

Hollywood’s job is to allow us to believe the impossible. But some time between the disembarkation and the collision, I hope you will steal a glimpse at the incredibly accurate depiction of the ship itself. Only Hollywood could create a set of such exacting detail. And most of all, I urge you to steal a glimpse at the “extras” --- those passengers and crew in the crowd shots who represent the real people who actually walked Titanic’s decks and died there.

These are the people that I bring to life in my book. And their stories sprang from historical fact. There was no need to invent a single character when there were over 2000 to choose from. And every real-life story is more fascinating than the next. The story of Titanic has not gripped our imaginations for a century because of Jack and Rose. We relate to Titanic because of a love-struck girl in 3rd class migrating from Lebanon and of a love struck-boy in 3rd class migrating from London. Because of the boys who dreamt of becoming professional baseball players. Because of girls who dreamt of becoming silent movie stars. Because of men and woman whose love for each other was real. Because their love for their children was stronger than the steel that made up Titanic’s hull.

Jack and Rose and Hollywood will allow you to forget the real lives and loves represented by the “extras.” And the miracle of CGI will allow you a realistic glimpse of the ship and the sinking. But if you want a realistic glimpse into the hearts and minds of those who were actually aboard Titanic (those people who are just like you and me), then you’ll have to open up the pages of a book.

I suggest you use your ticket stub as a bookmark.