Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Remained Was A "Dead Wake"...

Ever heard of the Lusitania? How about it's overarching historical significance?  Or just the fact that 1,198 lives were lost during the sinking? Eventually overshadowed by the infamous sinking of the Titanic and by World War I which was just starting to pick up steam during the same time period, the sinking of the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, was a catalyst event in the war.  Nonetheless, due to exaggerated propaganda accounts of the event, the USA's eventual entrance into the war,and the stronger disaster legacy of the Titanic, the true story Lusitania has faded into history, earning just a paragraph or two in most historical account of World War I.  However, the Lusitania tragedy means so much more to history: it was the turning point in the United States' attitude towards the conflict and introduced a new type of subterfuge warfare to the spotlight: the submarine, perfected by the Germans and called the U-boat.  2015 marks 100 years since the sinking: 2015 also marks the debut of Dead Wake, the newest book from American author, Erik Larson.

For those who do know about the Lusitania, you know that it sank on 7 May 1915, after being struck by a German U-boat's torpedo.  The victims, which consisted of an unusual amount of children and infants for a voyage, were a variety of nationalities.  This included Americans.  At the time, the US was still neutral in World War I.  However, the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of American lives put the US on a path that would lead to their joining the war in 1917.  The political scenes in Germany, Britain, and the US were tense, angry, and bound to erupt.  Which they did.  This is the part of the tragedy that most history books focus on.  However, in Dead Wake, Larson explores the event from the beginning.  He traces the history of the Lusitania, while exploring the parallel history of the world and the boiling tensions that would erupt into a full scale world war.  Reading Dead Wake, one will find stories of cowardice and heroism; there are descriptions of historical fact, along with eyewitness and news accounts.  Like all of Larson's other books, by the time a reader is finished, they are thoroughly well versed and highly engrossed in the subject matter.

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Larson's acclaim as an author comes from his master storytelling talent: he has perfected the ability to make nonfiction (usually a genre viewed as academic and boring) come alive and become almost fiction-like in it's telling. Author of the highly successfully and critically acclaimed The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) and In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), Larson has done it again.  He has taken another obscure historical event (the obscure and peculiar are his specialties)and turned it into a gripping thriller, one that weaves in fact, scandal, violence, love, heroics, and politics, only to create an account so spectacular the reader will want more.  Larson is a perfectionist in the best and worst senses of the word.  Readers can be assured that he has fact checked and researched each and every solitary detail throughout each book.  He has the uncanny ability to research things down to the exact detail; however, instead of becoming tedious as in most nonfiction, the details only enhance the story, lending it beautiful descriptions and settings that a reader can get lost in. The perfection can be bad though because most nonfiction books are now ruined for you.  Larson has changed the nonfiction game; his books can be understood and enjoyed by people who do not know much about the subject or about history or nonfiction at all.

Erik Larson also is a skillful historian; he is able to put into words the complex and often overwhelming political happenings of the particular time period in question.  This almost on-the-spot recounting is wonderful and educational. Yet, it can be terrible as it leaves the reader constantly reaching for Google to further investigate into situations that Larson writes about! The political intrigue of the book is possibly the most fascinating part.  The constant back and forth between different nations is suspenseful. Larson deftly illustrates how the strain from the seemingly endless war and the rapidly changing methods of warfare caused all governments to be divided.  On one hand, there are those who are skeptical of the new methods of warfare, namely the submarine.  They do not believe that subs can do any large-scale damage.  On the other are those are painfully aware of what the introduction of submarines will do to modern warfare.  This back and forth heightens the tension and suspense- all while the telling of the voyage itself is interspersed throughout the book-  that leads to the event itself.

I know what you are thinking: you do not like nonfiction and history was and always will be boring. This is most definitely NOT the case in Erik Larson's books.  He has the exceptional ability to make history relevant and exciting, to make even the most mundane details seem important and interesting. This is history at it's best.  It's history stripped down of all the monotony and dull repetition that plagues history classes.  This is history how it really was: uncertain, intriguing, devastating, and hopeful.  Dead Wake and, honestly, any of Larson's other books, are more than worth the read.

Dead Wake is available for library check-out 
and personal purchase 10 March 2015.

Special thanks to Crown Publishing Group and Erik Larson for my ARC!  

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