what i'm reading: dead wake: the last crossing of the lusitania by erik larson

On May 7, 1915, the gigantic luxury ocean liner Lusitania - an engineering marvel, the fastest ship of its era - was hit by a torpedo shot from a German "U-boat" submarine. The ship had nearly completed its crossing from New York and was in sight of the Irish coast.

Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk. 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways, were gone. Only six of the ship's 22 lifeboats had been launched. Many passengers drowned because they had put their life-jackets on wrong, so their feet waved in the air while their heads were held underwater. The passenger list included an unprecedented number of infants and children, including several large families. 764 people survived, including the ship's captain.

Before reading Erik Larson's Dead Wake, I knew nothing about this incident. I might have vaguely known that it had something to do with World War I, perhaps not even that. So for me, this book was a revelation, and I think most readers would agree.

Larson tells the story through multiple perspectives, cutting in short chapters between the ship, the U-boat, Woodrow Wilson's White House, and the top-secret British naval intelligence office. Despite the known outcome, Larson builds suspense masterfully. The first-person accounts of Lusitania passengers, and dozens of perfectly placed details, paint a very vivid picture.

I found the chapters on the German side particularly fascinating. Most of us know something about travel on the glorious ocean liners of that era, from all the Titanic lore. But I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing nothing about submarine technology of that time. The conditions on the U-boats were beyond grueling, and so dangerous that early forays were suicide missions. Reading Dead Wake, I developed an unexpected sympathy for the U-boat captain and crew, despite knowing that they were preying on undefended civilians. This is a tribute to Larson's considerable skill.

Larson is an absolute master of literary nonfiction. He established his reputation in 2003 with Devil in the White City, about a hunt for a serial killer during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. I haven't read his other books, but White City is a true page-turner, and Dead Wake is even better.

Many things about the sinking of the Lusitania remain unsolved and controversial. To those ends, Larson presents new evidence suggesting that British naval intelligence knew, and possibly even expected, the attack, but allowed it to happen to give the United States a pretext for joining the war then raging in Europe and elsewhere. According to this review, Lusitania buffs will encounter nothing new. But how many of us are Lusitania buffs? For everyone who is not, this book will be richly rewarding.


allan said...

Looks like I may have to read this.

Wait... Having knowledge of an upcoming terrorist attack and allowing it to happen merely as a pretext for war? Why, that's nothing but crazy talk!

laura k said...

I thought that angle might interest you!

I should also add that it's a fast read, particularly for nonfiction. Not dense, very accessible.

Amy said...

I loved White City, so I will have to check this one out.

How do you distinguish literary non-fiction, non-fiction, and historical fiction?

laura k said...

Literary nonfiction is also called narrative nonfiction. A nonfiction story that is told in a narrative form. Narrative nonfiction that we've talked about: Triangle, Devil in the White City, Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox.

Nonfiction (non narrative): self-help, how-to, political/social arguments (eg, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, Katha Pollitt). No story, just information.

Historical fiction: fiction in a historical setting. Often fictional characters interact with people who really lived, but those people are still fictional versions of themselves, so the author can make them say or do anything they want. (Almost all movies that are supposed to be historical are historical fiction.)

laura k said...

Amy, I accidentally deleted 2 comments from you (and 2 by someone else). What was your question about memoirs and biographies? Those are in their own category, but are not narrative fiction. Please ask again! :)

johngoldfine said...

I'm enjoying 'Dead Wake'--thanks for the tip and the review.

Amy said...

That was the question, Laura---are they a form of literary nonfiction since they have a narrative?

laura k said...

I don't want to say memoirs are not literary, since they obviously can be. But I would not call them narratives. Just my opinion, though. (Thanks for posting again.)

karen said...

This sounds like an interesting book. It sounds very similar to a program I heard on CBC's Rewind. It was called
Rendezvous with Death : The Sinking of The Lusitania. It first aired in 1965 and had audio clips from still-then living survivors. It was very well done and moving. I think I would like Dead Wake, too.