Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: Dead Wake by Eric Larson

The best historical fiction transports a reader to a different time and place, so much so that pages come alive. The story is real. The same can be said for the best historical nonfiction. All senses are engaged; taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight. The reader not only comes away with a better understanding of historical events, but a complete picture of the world in a far-removed time. It’s the mark of a great book when you root for people to survive and forget they are long dead.

New York Times Bestseller, Dead Wake, is a vibrant telling of the last crossing of the steamship Lusitania. No stuffy compilation of facts, no dull recitation of times and dates. As Larson relates the story of the doomed ship and the passengers, readers are drawn along. It doesn’t take long to become vested in their survival. Will the young man headed to England for his engagement live? What about the little boy with measles confined to bed? His pregnant mother? The spiritualist? The book dealer with his priceless package? Larson uses a treasure trove of letters, diaries, and written reminisces to give each a unique voice.

Larson flicks the story between the major players; the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, the British Admiralty, President Woodrow Wilson, and the U-boat commander Schwieger. This is in no way confusing, but instead, reveals surprising details. Some are sweet. President Wilson wrote gushy love letters for his soon-to-be wife, Edith. Others are simply amusing. I never expected a description of life aboard a U-boat to include a dachshund with puppies who cuddled with the crew.  

Tragedy can sometimes approach a comedy of errors. The sinking of the Lusitania is no exception. Warnings of submarines sightings were ignored or never sent. People who needed vital information didn’t get it. Even simple pride played a large part. Few took seriously the German government’s warning that all ships flying the British flag were fair game. Even when they did, destroying the Lusitania was unthinkable. She was the biggest, fastest passenger ship afloat with more than enough lifeboats. Too bad safety drills weren’t mandatory. Maybe then passengers would have actually learned how to put on their life jackets.

Larson’s face-paced chapters build tension until the final moment when U-20 fires the torpedo. After that, the story turns to nail-biting anxiety as the ship quickly sinks. Heartbreaking tragedy follows when who lived and who died is revealed.

Dead Wake has no overly technical jargon or dull details. No one is painted as a villain. This is simply a great read that recreates a tragic historical event in remarkable detail. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys getting lost in another time and place, whether fictional or real. Any quibbles? Yes. Other than one map and one photograph of the Lusitania, the book contains no illustrations or pictures. The omission is disappointing.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.

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