The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!
On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.
Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.
Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…
I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.
Rating: 9 out of 10 stars