Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Having previously enjoyed reading The Devil in White City by Erik Larson, (which I read because I'm a sucker for cool covers/titles) I figured I would enjoy another book by him, Dead Wake. It's about the sinking of the Lusitania. We all know how this story ends, so it doesn't seem like it would make a compelling tale. However, he does a great job sucking the reader into his account, making the passengers and crew real people. By the time the fatal torpedo is fired, one can be forgiven for hoping it misses.

Larson looks closely into the stories of Captain Turner, many of the passengers, as well as the history and background of the German submariner who fired the blow and the counterintelligence agency monitoring his movement. All around, Larson paints the tragedy as a failure on many levels, as well as a lucky shot on the part of the Germans. So many things had to come together to kill the large bulk of the passengers, that it can be rightly described as a Perfect Storm. Some give it a darker patina, with hints that the British government wanted an attack on a passenger liner to succeed, thereby drawing America into the war. 

While he provides no details of a nefarious plot, it is clear that the ship was not protected like it should have been. It was also given no notice of a submarine in the area. Plus, the weather and instrument failure caused it to zig and zag (like it would have had it known of a sub in the area), but unfortunately, it "zagged" right into the path of the sub, setting up the perfect kill shot. 

While the sinking of the Titanic a couple of years earlier meant that the boat was equipped with enough lifeboats, many were collapsable canvas boats. The torpedo caused so much immediate damage, the ship listed dramatically to one side, thereby making efforts to launch all the lifeboats on one side impossible. 

This tragedy did not immediately lead to the entry of the United States into war. But it definitely set the stage a couple of years later. Americans remembered their dead. The rejoicing of the German's at the death of so many innocents still rankled. 

While most of us are familiar with the rough outline of this story, Larson fills it out in a fascinating way. By the end of the story your heart breaks for the dead and rejoices with the survivors. Larson definitely makes the case that the sinking was not foreordained. Many events contributed to the tragedy. Some are incompetence, some are luck, and some may have darker intentions. No matter what, the tale is harrowing.

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