Are you ready to nerd out over a combination of history, conspiracy theory, and national disaster?
Yes. Yes you are.
Two shipwrecks took place in the late 1910s. Both were massive British passenger liners, providing a false sense of security to passengers who trusted in powerful turbines and colossal size. Both death tolls were upwards of 1,000; both had tragic (and deadly) problems with lifeboats and lifejackets. One was sunk by nature in the dead of night; the other sunk by man on a calm, sunny spring day. My guess is you can name the first one; the subject of many books, an Academy award prizewinner and the reason that movie theaters had to supply tissues to movie-goers in the late 90s.
But can you name the second?
If you can’t, it may be by design.
“There’s no doubt at all about it that the Royal Navy and the British government have taken very considerable steps over the years to try to prevent whatever can be found out about the Lusitania,’ said Professor William Kingston, of Trinity College in Dublin.
History has a way of spotlighting certain stories, but shadowing others (especially those which direct fault toward the powers that still reign in our world today). Evidence and truth fade away with time, or in some cases are deliberately scrambled, and the narrative doesn’t ring strongly enough to make an impact in our minds.
And that’s where Erik Larson comes in. But I wouldn’t say he’s a conspiracy theorist; or looking to exclaim “Gotcha!” at the British, nearly a century later.
I think Larson saw a great story, and thought it should be told.
I’ve been a fan of Larson’s for years, starting with The Devil in the White City, his thrilling take on the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and the sinister murderer posing as a sweet and charming doctor. Larson takes historical events and turns them into novel-like experiences, delving into the characters of those involved, and weaving all the facts into intensely readable (even un-put-downable) books.
He applies his engaging style to the German sinking of the Lusitania in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
The cast of characters is broad: from resourceful Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, carrying priceless documents (including Dickens’ own annotated copy of The Christmas Carol); to the brave Captain Turner, who fully expected to go down on his ship; to the cunning German U-Boat captain, Schwieger. Even President Woodrow Wilson appears as a character in this book, in a little-known (and romantic!) narrative.
There’s at least one Hungry Heroine on board, described in Larson’s characteristic rich detail. Theodate Pope, an independent-minded early feminist, turned away from the high society of her upbringing, and decided to create her own education in architecture. By 1910, she was a knowledgeable and experienced architect in her own right, and became the first female architect licensed in Connecticut.
You might think it would be difficult to build suspense in a story with a well-known ending; but Larson is able to create a dynamic, vibrant story with many layers. History teachers everywhere should be proud!
I truly enjoyed this read. You should put in a request at the library or pick it up if:
- You’re a bit of a history buff. I use the word “a bit” deliberately here; I don’t think that you have to be interested in multi-volume historical accounts of World War I to get into this story. But if you enjoy reading about history, especially learning new facts and uncovering forgotten narratives, this will be your jam.
- You’ve enjoyed dramatized versions of the Titanic. The glamour of the luxurious lodgings, the drama of events leading up to the sinking, the curiosity: What would it be like to be on a sinking ship? All these themes are present in Dead Wake.
- You’re one for details. Some readers might find it tedious to read about the number of bottles of whiskey and cigars consumed in luxurious fashion, or the background stories behind passenger’s decisions to board. For me, these details add to an immersive historical experience.
What have you been reading lately?