I’ve been reading quite a bit of narrative non-fiction of late, and my book choice for “What I’m Reading Wednesday” does not disappoint.
In the way that Erik Larson’s other books have entertained as much as educated, I have found his newest release Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania to be a page-turner and an eye-opener. His telling has plenty of detail and brings the story to life. Did I know the story of the Lusitania? I thought I did, but this book proved that I had a back-cover summary of the events in contrast to the complex reality.
The Lusitania was a ship in the British Cunard line that made its final sailing in 1915. Britain was at war with Germany, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was trying to maintain neutrality and German U-boats were firing on anything and everything from naval ships to merchant ships to even a well-marked Red Cross hospital ship.
Larson tells the story from all sides: from William Turner, captain of the Lusitania to Walther Schwieger, captain of the U-boat which would ultimately cause the demise of the Lusitania; from President Wilson as he grieves for his deceased wife to Herbert Hope of “Room 40” in the British Admiralty, who interpreted intercepted German messages; and from a multitude of passengers on the ship. He weaves together details of all
I had no idea of how much information was at hand about a credible threat to the ship Lusitania and the people on board, and how much of this information was not shared so that the Admiralty would not show its hand and tip off the Germans that they had means to intercept their messages.
The confidence of the ship’s captain, who had faith in the rules of war and in the speed of his ship along with that of its passengers who seemed almost lackadaisical in their response to the threat at hand as they sailed into a war zone seems naive in comparison to current times.
We are given a close-up look at rigorous life on a U-boat and the wild-west cowboy mentality of the submarine captain, particularly once out of wireless range as at that point all decisions are made by the captain alone and without consequence.
The story starts before the ship departs and it takes 118 pages before it even sets sail. Larson has a way of weaving in vast amounts of detail that should be overwhelming but somehow works.
This was one of those events where timing was everything. As you sit back and read how the events unfolded, you cannot but feel helpless in light of how much of the disaster could have been avoided and what could or should have been done to save the lives of crew and passengers. For any history-buff, this book is a must read.
As a member of the From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of the book for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are my own.