Sinking ships make for sensational stories and Erik Larson’s Dead Wake; The Last Crossing of the Lusitania does not disappoint in that respect. Yet this historical account of the 1915 disaster that played a role in America’s entry into the Great War is more than a lurid tale. It is a well-researched historical account written in an engaging novelistic style. As popular history and as nautical literature it is dead on — or ded on, in deduced reckoning terminology.
Unlike a novelist Larson invents nothing; he doesn’t have to. He credits a wealth of information available for the abundance of significant details he incorporates. His scope is broad – he tells the story from multiple perspectives, including Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, the German submarine that sank the passenger ship with one torpedo (not two, as has sometimes been reported.) Yet Larson never presumes to know anyone’s thoughts, nor does he invent dialogue.
“What especially drew me was the rich array of materials available to help tell the story in as vivid a manner as possible – such archival treasures as telegrams, intercepted wireless messages, survivor depositions, secret intelligence ledgers…Schwieger’s actual war log, Edith Galt’s love letters, and even a film of the Lusitania’s final departure from New York,” says the author in his ‘Sources and Acknowledgments’. What he chooses to show can sometimes be damning (as in the case of Woodrow Wilson and the British Admiralty) but mostly it just renders the historical characters fully human.
Larson achieves a cinematic illusion of being there with his marvelous, minute details, his choice of verbs, and by employing the actual words people wrote or spoke. He brings us on board both the Cunard luxury liner and the U-boat by explaining necessary nautical and technical concepts clearly and simply, without ever detracting from the story.
As the story progresses the chapters become shorter and shorter, quickening the pace and adding to the suspense. Even though the reader may know what happens, there is far more to the story than just facts and fatalities, who drowned and who survived, and who was at fault. Working with a wealth of related facts and observations, weaving multiple viewpoints together for a multifaceted view steeped in historical context, the author never lets the sprawling narrative founder. At the heart of this complex historical account is a good nautical story.
Water Ghosts, my own ship disaster story, coming soon from Old Salt Press!