Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
Ever since I read The Devil in the White City, I’ve been a huge fan of Erik Larson’s. His is a particular kind of novelistic non-fiction that I haven’t seen any other writer achieve. He is able to take something that really happened and flesh out the characters and plot as though he created them. He is thorough, precise, and you can tell that he loved every minute of the process.
When I heard about his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania I couldn’t wait to read it.
I basically spent all day Saturday doing just that.
Let’s just take a minute to underscore that achievement: Erik Larson wrote a non-fiction book that is so compulsively readable that I finished it in a day. I mean, I love non-fiction and you know I have no problems reading it but I’m not sure that I’ve ever done this before.
I’d say the title is pretty self-descriptive in terms of what this book is about: the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915. But as is often the case in Larson’s books, this one event set off a chain of events that ultimately brought the United States into the First World War. The sinking of a passenger ship by a German U-boat was considered by many Americans to have crossed the line and they wanted to do something about it.
But before Larson gets to the politics that followed the sinking, he describes how the war started in the first place and the days leading up to boarding the ship. He tells us about the people on board: the Cromptons, a family with 6 children and 2 nannies booked into 3 staterooms; Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the men that almost sailed on the Titanic; Theodate Pope, a female architect and spiritualist who served as an investigator of paranormal phenomena and was a friend of Henry James; Charles Lauriet, a bookseller travelling with a set of priceless Thackeray sketches and a copy of A Christmas Carol that had been owned by Dickens’ himself and annotated by the author; Richard Preston Prichard, a second class passenger who was so popular that a number of letters and journals mention him by name; and Robert Kay, a five year old boy who was diagnosed with measles and missed all the fun, spending the voyage in quarantine below deck.
Larson also looks at the man at the helm of the U-Boat, Walther Schweiger who by all accounts was a gregarious man and a good captain. He was able to maintain order on board but earned the respect of his crew and tried to make their days on board as pleasant as possible, at one point they even had puppies on board if you can believe that. The German military was set up so that U-Boat captains were able to make all their own decisions – they were the only ones that could see what was happening and had full judgment to sink passenger liners if they so chose. Their decisions are unpopular in the annals of history but it was wartime and they did what they had to do. Larson is skilled at capturing that delicate balance without judgement.
You know that it’s not going to be a happy ending, from the title alone. Even thinking myself prepared for the end, I was caught off guard by how moved I was by it. Again, Larson handles his subject matter with compassion and care without being sentimental.
Guys, I’m a huge fan of Erik Larson and at this point I’d probably read something he wrote on a cocktail napkin, but if you haven’t read any of his work yet, get to it. He is the best and he tells some incredible (true) stories; you won’t even realize you’re reading non-fiction.