Unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel, the Lusitania glided by in the night as a giant black shadow cast upon the sea.
In Dead Wake, Larson sets up all the major players for us; the White House, the British Admiralty, the German U-Boats, Captain Turner with his crew and passengers. He then meticulously draws out the sequence of events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania, and asks the question: Could the sinking of the Lusitania have been prevented?
There were 1,959 people on board the Lusitania when it sank. Only 764 survived. To me, this sounds like a ridiculously low number considering the fact that they had all the lifeboats required, as well as lifejackets for everyone on board. They also had a captain who knew what he was doing, even if some of his crew were not up to his standards. They were warned that U-boats were in the area, they were not too far from shore. So, what happened? Why so many lives lost? Why should they have been torpedoed at all?
For our part, we want the traffic – the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still. (Winston Churchill)
I learned so much from this book. I learned, of course, the story behind the sinking of the Lusitania. But the book includes so much more than that. We get a glimpse of major events going on in the world while the drama on board unfolds. The politics of WWI and the question of when America will be joining the war, the secrets of Room 40, the ins and outs of living and working on a submarine, the staggering amount of coal needed to fuel a ship the size of the Lusitania, a look into the romantic life of Woodrow Wilson, the treatments for depression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popular actresses and films at the time, and the popularity and science of spiritualism.
It’s fascinating to read about people who really lived – the ordinary people as well as the better known ones. There are the historical political figures, of course, like Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill. But, I enjoyed just as much reading about the array of passengers aboard the Lusitania; Charles Lauriat, a bookseller who had some valuable items on board the ship; Theodate Pope, an architect and spiritualist suffering from depression; Dwight Harris, a man traveling to England to propose to his girlfriend; Margaret Mackworth, a woman dreading going back to her dead marriage of 7 years; Elbert Hubbard, the soap salesman turned author who was traveling to Europe with the goal of interviewing Kaiser Wilhelm; and others, including many families with children. Then there was Captain Turner and his quiet, solitary life. And, the Captain of the German submarine who did the damage, Walther Schwieger – Larson makes him sound like an ordinary, likeable guy just going about his job of sinking ships.
Larson presents a stark contrast between the fighting in Europe and days spent on the Lusitania; the devastation of the trenches and the languid days on deck. Tensions were higher than usual on the Lusitania, but most of the crew and passengers believed the boat was unsinkable, especially with the anticipated escorts from the British Navy (the ones that never came).
Larson definitely knows how to build the tension. At the beginning of the book he takes his time setting it all up, but once it got going, I had trouble tearing my eyes from the page. Even though it is a story whose ending we all know, I found myself feeling nervous and hoping the author would find a way for it all to be avoided. As the time on board ticks away, the narrative takes us from passenger to passenger, painting us a picture of where everyone is, what they are doing, and even what they are thinking or saying to each other at any given time. All the while, I wanted to yell at everyone to pay attention! When he got to the part about the children being spread out around the ship and their parents frantically trying to gather them up, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading. Then there was the horror of people not knowing how to put their life jackets on properly. In the end, the U-20 Captain couldn’t even stay to watch.
It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful… The scene was too horrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away. (Walther Schwieger)
When death is as close as he was then, the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that. (Margaret Mackworth)
When the thing really comes, God gives to each the help he needs to live or to die. (Ruth M. Wordsworth)
The book takes us right up until the United States decide to join the war on April 6, 1917. By then, the Allies had suffered greatly, and they were cheered by the prospect of new support coming from America. Bernard Gribble captured the scene of the May arrival of the American ships in his famous painting, The Return of the Mayflower.
I have seen so many book bloggers rave about Erik Larson’s books that, when I saw this new one coming out, I took it as my chance to finally read one of them. It won’t be my last. Which one do you recommend I read next? If you have read Dead Wake, how does it compare to the others?
*Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.