Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author: Erik Larson
Pages: 448 pages
Release Date: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre: History; Military; Naval
My Rating: 4/5

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

In the early stages of World War I, there were so many precautionary measures taken to prevent such a maritime catastrophe. Germany was warned at taking action against neutral merchant ships to avoid war with the United States. A police detective was put on the Lusitania to keep watch #fail. A new zig-zag method was suggested for ships to better dodge U-boats. You know, like running from an alligator. 

Preventative acts aside, there are so many puzzle pieces that, once put together, culminated in the sinking of the Lusitania. This was the era where the speed of ship seemed to define the ability of a cruise line and of its captain. Cruise lines competed to be on top but also looked at all angles to cut costs. The Lusitania steamed to Britain using three of their four stacks to conserve coal. 

Originally built to accommodate the military if need-be, the Lusitania was built with the hull of a battleship. Also known as a big red fuckin' flag when you are the captain of a German U-boat. Walter Schweiger and his crew had no communication with their military command. Too far away from Germany to have a decent radio signal, they were told upon their departure to cruise around Britain and use their best judgement when deciding to blow stuff up. Schweiger stumbled upon the Lusitania far outside his designated patrol grounds. On his return trip to Germany.

The Lusitania was in the right place at the wrong time. Germany's U-20 submarine was in the wrong place at the right time. The culmination of so many factors was the perfect storm for sinking an ocean liner.

Larson humanizes the story by giving several individual accounts of Lusitania and U-20 passengers. There are some interesting characters here: spiritualists, book collectors, art collectors, rich, poor, young, old, and a Vanderbilt sprinkled in for good measure. It's like James Cameron's Titanic. Sappy love story included. I'm not sure why President Woodrow Wilson and Edith's courtship was frequently touched upon, but Larson did a damn thorough job of painting the complete picture of the world during the war. So much so, that I tended to forget there was a boat at the center of this story.

I have one qualm with this book: the style of it was like a novel. No pictures. Chapters with vague titles like 'Bloody Monkeys' and 'Jump Rope and Caviar'. The density of this history wasn't easily digestible this way. I couldn't make it through the first 13 pages for a very very long time. I rented the audiobook just to give my eyes a rest. But Scott Brick narrated it. And his drawl was agonizing. It took me three weeks to slog through the first 90 pages. And only a week to get through the remainder. Lemme tell you, it gets good.

I highly recommend the audio book. But only if you speed up Brick's narration to at least 1.5x the original pace. The story of the Lusitania is important. And it's the 100th anniversary of the sinking, so educate yo' self.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review.

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