Sunday, July 24, 2016

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

I always find it sad to read about past tragedies. As the inevitable terrible thing comes closer to fruition in whatever book or article I'm reading, I can't help but feel some futile internal push-back. Maybe this time the terrible thing won't happen, my poor, naive mind hopes. I never win this battle; unfortunately, my losing streak continued with Erik Larson's Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. 

The last known photo of the Lusitania

Prior to digging into this awesome piece of narrative nonfiction, I felt like I had at least a passable amount of knowledge about the Lusitania. It's certainly one of the most famous maritime disasters in modern history, maybe only second to the Titanic. As I read however, I learned that some of what I thought I knew about the disaster turned out to be false. The biggest error in my knowledge (and probably everyone else's, for that matter) was the ship's involvement in America entering World War I. I thought the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine was what catapulted the United States into the war, much like Pearl Harbor; there were several American casualties, so it's not that far-fetched. However, this tragedy was not enough to spur President Woodrow Wilson into military action. In fact, it took the United States two more years of German aggression before Wilson called for war (the last straw for Wilson was a German telegram to Mexico urging them to start a war with the U.S.).

Wilson's apparent timidity in jumping into the war could have been a frustrating thing to read about, but Larson dodged that feeling, at least for me, by making Wilson a primary character in the story. Instead of focusing solely on his reactions to German aggression, Larson takes us into the personal turmoil Wilson was going through during that time. His first wife had recently died, and Wilson was inconsolable for a long period. Eventually, he found a new love, and while war was raging in Europe, Wilson was struggling through the ups and downs of a courtship that had major impacts on his already fragile emotional state. Every time Wilson avoided action in response to German attacks on ships carrying American passengers, I felt sympathy rather than frustration. Wilson was trying his level best to maintain American neutrality, even in the face of advisers who were clamoring for war.

Focusing on 3 or 4 major players in a historical event seems to be Larson's strength. In addition to characters off the Lusitania, Larson also focuses on several characters aboard the ship. My personal favorite was Theodate Pope. Pope was a renaissance woman, whose varied interests included architecture and spiritualism. Her life seemed so fascinating, and she's definitely worth a supplementary Google search after reading the book.

Larson is probably best known for his mega-hit, The Devil in the White City, which is about creepy murderer H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World's Fair I think? I don't know, it's been chilling on my bookshelf for a long time, unread. I found Dead Wake on a communal bookshelf during a brief visit to Mississippi, and since Larson's been on my radar for a while, I dug in. I'm glad I did. Even though the Lusitania's story doesn't end well, reading about its journey was absolutely worthwhile.