For me, 2012 was the year of Erik Larson. As part of a concerted effort to return to better reading habits, I read The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. Although nonfiction is still a small fraction of my overall reading intake, I can thank Erik Larson for reminding me that true stories can be just as engrossing as fiction. I knew that I would eventually read his 2015 release.
Erik Larson’s latest book is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I’ve always felt distinctly lacking in World War I knowledge, especially compared to the relatively large number of stories I’ve read about World War II. The sinking of the Lusitania is one of the major events you often hear mentioned in relation to the United States entering the war, but I discovered that even my broad understanding was mostly incorrect. The Lusitania was a British liner with some American passengers. Even after the ship was sunk by a German submarine attack, it was another two years before the U.S. entered the war.
Dead Wake is presented in Larson’s typical novelistic style. Chapters provide perspectives from British naval intelligence, the White House, the U-boat that would eventually sink the ship, and the Lusitania itself. I hope that any historian worth his salt would explore all sides when recounting an event, but I still appreciate Larson’s efforts on that score. Even a seemingly simple act of war comes from a chain of cause and effect. How did Germany reach the point of attacking passenger ships? And why was the Lusitania sailing unprotected through waters that had been declared a war zone?
History books make me lament the end of letter-writing. Mostly on the basis of letters written during and after the voyage, Larson is able to paint a detailed picture of life aboard the Lusitania and single out some of its passengers as “characters” for his story. The same can be said for his portrayal of Woodrow Wilson, the heartbroken widower trying desperately to keep America out of the European war. Larson’s handling of the U-boat takes a slightly different tone because its primary source is the captain’s log. Historians have detailed knowledge of the U-boat’s movements, but can only speculate on the captain’s true feelings about sinking a civilian vessel. However, because of those passages, I can say that life on a U-boat might well be my worst nightmare.
As a reader I was less disturbed by the U-boat’s actions, however brutal they may be, than by the role of naval intelligence in the Lusitania‘s demise. More precisely, information was withheld that could have saved the ship at several turns. The Imitation Game touches on the same dilemma: if you act on every piece of intelligence, the enemy will likely figure out that you’ve broken their code and your advantage will be lost. Moral dilemmas and potential conspiracies abound in Dead Wake, making it a fascinating read for any history fan.
I feel like I should read more history books. The narrative aspect appeals to me, yet I’m also learning something. Add that to the ever-expanding reading goals.