Ellen’s Pick of the Week: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Lusitaniabig

“Notice posted in NY newspapers:

Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Imperial German Embassy

Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.”

Erik Larson has done it again! He has taken the sinking of the Lusitania,  an historic event that most of us have deadwakeheard of,  and turned it into an unforgettable story.

One hundred years ago this week, on May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat sunk the British luxury passenger liner the RMS Lusitania. Larson transports the reader on board of what had been one of the world’s largest and most opulent passenger ships and we get to know several of the more interesting of the 1266 passengers onboard who knowingly traveled  from New York to Ireland, through a war zone. We become acquainted with the ship’s Captain Turner and come to understand his misplaced trust in the traditional rules of civilized warfare which precluded attacking a civilian ship.

The reader gets to watch over the shoulder of Captain Walther Schwieger, the captain of the German U-boat 20, as he hunts for an enemy vessel to sink before he runs out of fuel. The reader is allowed into the top secret British Admiralty room which was closely monitoring both enemy and friendly sea traffic around Ireland. We walk and dine with President Wilson, still in mourning for his late wife, as he courts Edith, a new love who will eventually become Mrs. Wilson. The reader knows what’s going to happen, yet Larson’s vivid depiction of the characters and his ability to build suspense, makes it impossible to turn away. We want to know what happens to these characters because Larson’s brilliant writing has made us care about them.

This is the best way to learn about historical events which can so often be taught as dry facts and dates to memorize. Erik Larson is the master of drawing his readers back into time and into the lives of those who were there. If history teachers could just take a lesson from Larson, perhaps more of their students would learn more than just the facts. Larson realizes that what happened in the past is still resonating in our world today.

–Ellen Jennings, ejennings@cooklib.org

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