The sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, was a tragedy of historic proportions. Dyer’s novel approaches this infamous event from a different perspective: the reaction of a steamer closest to the doomed
Titanic, the SS Californian. During the midnight watch--the hours between 12 and 4am--second officer Herbert Stone identifies the release of eight rockets from a vessel a few miles away. Noting the times and his responses in the log, Stone worries about notifying Captain Stanley Lord, feeling duty-bound to make contact with his superior officer regardless of the hour.
Surrounded by ice floes, the
Californian has shut down its engines until visibility improves, Stone left to ponder his observations and concerns about the other vessel in his binoculars, its size and whether it is signaling for help. Conscientious to a fault, Stone is loyal to his captain, anxious to do the correct thing under the circumstances, ultimately acquiescing to shipboard regulations of authority and responsibility. A devout reader of Melville’s
Moby Dick, Stone strives to emulate the nobility of a man at sea, the rigors of discipline and authority that are critical to the hierarchy of command: “Oh, what quality of loyalty is that?” Disobeying the captain’s orders is anathema: survival depends upon discipline at every level. For whatever reason, Captain Lord chooses to
believe the signals Stone reports come from a smaller ship like their own, not the celebrated
Titanic crossing the Atlantic from England to America. As history proves, he is wrong, and 1,500 people perish.
The dramatic expose is due to the efforts of a journalist for The Boston American. John Steadman
is known in the trade as “the Body Man” for his stories about the dead after news-breaking events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: “Like a courtroom sketch artist, I tried to capture their likeness in a few finely observed strokes- a phrase here, a sentence there.” Steadman plans to write about the bodies recovered after the
Titanic has sunk, survivors already rescued and taken to shore. Steadman is anticipating what he will write in his article, but the
Californian has picked up no bodies. The reporter is met with the curt official responses of a captain and his officers
who deny having had any opportunity to intervene and assist before the tragedy. Steadman’s response: “There was a story on this ship. I could smell it.”
The Midnight Watch examines the truth of the Californian’s behavior from different perspectives: the journalist and the crew aboard the ship, particularly the captain; second officer; the Marconi (communications) officer; and resulting inquiries.
Perhaps the most memorable story published by Steadman comes after the inquests are finished: “There is something strange and profound in the eyes of the newly born and the newly dead.” His quest for a career-making story denied, “Eight White Rockets” chronicles the final hours of a family traveling from England to Florida to start a new life in America. Their poignant tale defines the chaos, panic and class discrimination on the
Titanic, another shameful fact rarely discussed in the following days.
Set against the vivid history of the era, harsh truths are teased from people and events, confusing circumstances eventually creating a cohesive image of the evolving drama: “The modern frenzy of steam-making seemed to bring with it a fevered insanity.” Nature thwarted history that dark night on the Atlantic, but human nature dictated the consequences of a captain’s decision not to respond to the urgency of distress signals, a great ocean liner sinking into the sea: “We are a ship of shame.”