On May 7, 1915, a torpedo struck the liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. It sank in less than 20 minutes, taking almost 1200 lives. It was a cause célèbre during World War I, a conflict that was just settling down into a lengthy stalemate of trench warfare. Not for nothing did those lost include dozens of American citizens. The United States had not yet entered the war.
That the sinking of the Lusitania is tragic is without question. That the people killed were innocents who had nothing really to do with the war being fought around them is equally without question. One would think their story might make for a gripping read. Maybe it is, but Dead Wake isn’t it.
Erik Larson is one of the stars of popular history. In books like The Devil in the White City (about the 1898 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who stalked it) and Thunderstruck (about Marconi’s development of wireless technology, and its relation to a grisly murder), he weaves multiple story lines together in a way that sheds light and provides dramatic structure for whatever historical event is the main focus. He does the same in Dead Wake, but it just doesn’t work as well.
Part of that, sad to say, is because he spends an awful lot of time aboard Lusitania before it sinks. To be blunt – the people he introduces us to just aren’t very interesting. To be more specific, the only thing interesting about their journey – their story in this book – is that the boat sinks. But we already know that, so where’s the dramatic interest? Much as I hate to say it, perhaps a fictional story is the better way to do this, ala Cameron’s Titanic.
That compounded by the fact that, looking back with a hundred extra years of history between now and then, the sinking of Lusitania doesn’t seem like the great crime it once was. After all, we’ve seen the incineration of entire cities and indiscriminate terrorist attacks since then. Lusitania being sunk was a horror, but (1) it wasn’t a neutral ship, however much time Larson spends on how the Germans dealt with such; (2) it was carrying armaments; and (3) it sailed into a declared war zone after specific warnings about the danger of doing so.
Also, for all the furor that the sinking caused, it didn’t really change anything. We spend a lot of wasted time in Dead Wake with a love-struck Woodrow Wilson, presumably because of the impact Lusitania’s sinking had on the American entry into the war. But that didn’t come until two years later and, at any rate, was part of the (arguably more interesting) aftermath of the sinking which Larson sails past (pun intended).
In addition to the strands of the Lusitania and Wilson, there’s a third bit where the book is at its best – on the U-boat that sunk the ship. Larson does great work in describing the nature of submarine life at that time. Not only does he cover the technical aspects, but his descriptions of the innards of the boat (and the sweaty guys aboard it) really come to life. He touches on the issues submarines brought to the rules of war, but only briefly. I wish he had spent more time diving deep into the philosophical depths on that one.
As I mentioned above, what’s arguably most interesting about the sinking of the Lusitania is what happened after the ship disappeared beneath the sea. The UK, in the middle of a war, had good information about what exactly happened, but tried to frame up the ship’s captain anyway (for reasons that are unclear). Americans were outraged, but did nothing about it – hard to imagine such restraint prevailing now. And there are so many unanswered questions about the sinking that conspiracy theories have sprouted up, fed by the continued secrecy of various sources of information. This would have been a fertile area for exploration, more so than the dull daily lives of passengers on board the ship.
One thing that Larson does through the book is highlight the power of coincidence and, for lack of a better word, “luck.” Lusitania was delayed about two hours on its way out of New York because it had to stop and get passengers from another liner. Had it not, it would have passed by the U-boat in the fog, preventing any attack. The ship’s captain, unaware of the U-boat lurking nearby, unwittingly turned the ship in a way that made it the perfect target. Things like that reinforce the randomness that often helps produce momentous events.
Dead Wake isn’t a bad read. It’s quite informative in spots and well written (as always). But it pales in comparison to Larson’s earlier work.