Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Non-fiction often reads like a textbook to me; it is a genre that, unless I’m truly interested in the subject, often times leaves me bored and I cannot finish the particular novel. As such, it is a rare occurrence when I say that I like and prefer to read a particular non-fiction author. This has to be an individual that is both informative and yet entertaining; someone that can spark renewed life into a historical event. For me, one such author is Erik Larson.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, even if you’ve never heard of the event, is pretty self-explanatory. I wasn’t too familiar with the story, and while I did know the tragic ending, I didn’t know when it occurred. I had to really withhold myself from looking up the disaster online; I didn’t want to be mentally counting down the chapters until tragedy struck. Larson, though, writes more than just a novel about one disastrous event. There is a lot more to the story of the Lusitania then just the sinking of a ship. It is a story about a war, about the people and about the questions that arise when learning what was and wasn’t done to avoid the disaster.
It is actually quite surprising that Larson doesn’t read like a textbook because he certainly floods you with the most information that can possibly be squeezed into one novel. Everything down to the clothing worn, hair and eye colour, and food eaten; it is a lot of information. For Dead Wake, this information sets the tone for the novel. It’s hard not to know where the story is going; the title spells tragedy. Providing all this information regarding the people and what they brought on the ship and their personalities, certainly makes the tragedy real for those of us learning about it decades later. I know my heart was breaking when Larson was discussing the priceless items that individuals were bringing on board with them.
Reviews for these types of novels are difficult. It’s hard to say that I loved the story, because how does one love a story regarding a disaster of this magnitude? Lives were lost, destroyed and severely altered. It is sad, depressing and maddening. Larson, though, gives it justice. He doesn’t take the subject lightly, and he treats it with the respect it deserves. He makes you question actions and responses; he makes you think about why the event happened, and how come it couldn’t have been avoided. The story of the Lusitania is frustrating to say the least. It is hard not to question certain tactics that could have very likely placed this ship in danger. Certain portions of Dead Wake make it seem like it was a predetermined event; that the sinking of the Lusitania was a sacrifice for a greater goal. Whether that was to goad the United States into the war, or something else, no one will truly know. If it was a sacrifice, it is truly saddening; people had no idea what danger they were in. Once again, the ‘unsinkable’ ship mythos was perpetuated. It’s hard to imagine that after the disaster of the Titanic, which happened shortly before this disaster, that a myth like that could still be perpetuated. But it was. The Lusitania was the fastest and safest ship to travel a war zone. To me, that logic is flawed; nothing is fast enough or safe enough to travel a war zone, and especially during this war, it seemed like rules (or what rules of war there were) were thrown to the side. As such, it truly saddens me to think that many people falsely believed they were safe and took the risk, if they even knew or understood it to be one.
Of course, there is an even crazier moment in this story, and it is one that sticks with me and must share. According to Larson, one passenger, while eating lunch on the day of the disaster, mentioned that his lunch was a good lunch to have if they were to actually get torpedoed. Shortly thereafter, the Lusitania was hit. It is stuff like this, that absolutely blows my mind.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson is a great read. It is informative and fascinating. One can only hope, that with books like these, history does not repeat itself.