Friday, December 9, 2016

November's Book: Dead Wake

Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Journalism (2015 - 353 pp.)

Dead Wake is Erik Larson's 100th-anniversary-timed retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania, an event that underscored U-Boat capabilities and potentially plunged the United States into World War I. It follows the parallel stories of the ship itself, including notable passengers and crew, and the submarine U-20 that sunk it. This format echoes Larson's previous bestseller Devil in the White City, which simultaneously follows the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer who stalked it.

The introduction is best when it describes the atmosphere surrounding the Lusitania's final launch from New York City to Liverpool. It is the size, speed and modernity of the vessel. (8-9) It is the mad scramble to either board - or intentionally not board. It is the German warning that merchant ships within a designated war zone around the British Isles may be torpedoed, and the eerie lack of concern most crew and passengers showed toward that warning. (multiple citations - flipping through the book at random reveals plenty) Likewise, Larson's initial description of U-Boats and U-Boat culture reveals an autonomy their captains held that would be almost unparalleled until World War II - much of which was because U-Boats eventually went out of Germany's wirless communication range. (58) Internally, U-Boats could be extremely uncomfortable, including "hellish temperature" (64), but they also had their moments of camaraderie, such as celebrating Christmas. U-20 had six daschunds on board at point, leading officer Rudolph Zetner to note that "I slept with a torpedo and a puppy." (62) All of this occurred while the U-20 was being watched from Room 40, a secret British codebreaking location.

For those unfamiliar with the main plot points, they can be spoiled here. This is not a suspense book in the least. That said, Larson humanizes the passengers, and U-20 Captain Walther Schwieger, to the point that there is suspense. An inanimate ship like the Lusitania can sink, and everyone remembers that, but no one can name the full list of survivors and deceased. By bringing personal stories and journals into Dead Wake, with surprisingly little artistic embellishment, Larson makes the reader wonder who lives and who dies.

My favourite passenger to read about was Charles Lauriat, a well-known Boston book dealer who lost a rare copy of A Christmas Carol in the wreck. Another interesting one was Theodate Pope, a noted spiritualist whose personal background is very well documented. Among her experiences was Dr. Silas Mitchell's "Rest Cure", which ordered patients to abstain from virtually all movement, often for weeks on end. Pope came to hate the Rest Cure, as many did;* this is unsurprising when considering that one of Mitchell's treatments was "mild electrical shock, delivered while the patient was in a filled bathtub". (158) Richard Preston Prichard and Grace French apparently had a wonderful time meeting each other on the Lusitania, emerging as better candidates for a fictionalized WWI-era ocean liner romance than what viewers actually got. Then there was some torpedo-related humour, despite that one expects submarine warfare to not be funny. Margaret Mackworth and her friend Dorothy Conner unwittingly entertained 2015-2016 readers with the following exchange:
Mackworth turned to Conner and said, "I always thought a shipwreck was a well-organized affair." 
"So did I," Conner replied, "but I've learnt a devil of a lot in the last five minutes." (251)
Hint: To try to figure out who survived and who did not, read into whose post-sinking journals are quoted before the sinking. If a passenger writes about the sinking in 1916, for example, the person obviously survived. If a passenger is only mentioned in the journals of others, the chances are slimmer... but not zero. This rule is broken a few times, and some quoted passengers' journals were only retrieved later, so there are still quite a few surprises. A hundred years is a long time to recover old documents that were sealed surprisingly well.

Equally important is that the reader understands just how devastating the passenger deaths were to Schwieger, who ordered the fateful torpedo. The Germans were certainly not shy about sinking British vessels, as in this commemorative medal made at the time by German artist Karl Goetz. It is worth noting that Lusitania's building was Royal Navy-funded, the ship had military-grade armour, and was carrying munitions when it was sunk. From a military perspective, for a U-Boat to sink such an imposing ship with only one torpedo was almost unbelievable. From a human perspective, Schwieger noted that "It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful... The scene was too horrible to watch." (264) Then, when was WWI ever simple?

My least favourite part of Dead Wake was the end. Once the ship has sunk, and the survivors are safely returned to their families, the rest of the book feels like a New Year's party on January 4th. I especially disliked the Woodrow Wilson vignettes, which felt irrelevant to the rest of the story. Yes, the sinking of the Lusitania factored into the United States's declaration of war on Germany two years later, but the book is about the boat, not the war.** Dead Wake also ends on a strange note; its last sentence is about a minor character, much like a news story might place its facts from most to least important. A tighter ending with a bang of a concluding sentence would have made for even better reading.

That said, I doubt anyone who was on either the Lusitania or U-20 that day is fit to disagree.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 7

*One of the Rest Cure's best known recipients was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who published "The Yellow Wall-Paper" in 1892. I have always loved the story but never knew it had been inspired so literally.

**For a great source on the causes of World War I, go with The Origins of the First World War by James Joll. Note that it is a history book, not journalism like Dead Wake, so it is denser and far less touching.

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