Dead Wake: Now Featuring 1000% More Tangents!

Erik Larson is one of the very few authors whose books I will read as they come out, no matter how long I have to wait.  He really is just that good at what he does.  It's even more extraordinary considering I really only read two types of nonfiction: cookbooks and true crime.  Sometimes the cookbook is also a comedic memoir, like You Deserve A Drink, but in general, I am not a nonfiction person.  Thankfully, Twitter has consoled me that other librarians have the same proclivities in nonfiction, so I don't look like the only cannibal mass-murdering librarian around.  (I am not one, by the way).

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania  is ... about just that.  But the narrative comprises so much more than just the sinking of a ship.  Larson writes history, not in a dry, pedantic manner, but so as to give it life.  The people involved in these events are not just sepia-toned photographs, but real people.  Someone you can relate to--or despise.

Particularly when it comes to disasters, we tend to focus on the event rather than all of the lives involved.  I think that this is a neurological coping mechanism.  If we thought constantly about the agony of the 2,996 people who died in the September 11, 2011 attacks, I think we should all go mad.  We say that the towers fell, or that the planes crashed, not in any disrespect to those who died, but because we feel too much.  Horror of that magnitude should not exist, and our brains know this.  To protect our sanity, they simplify.

And I believe that this is what truly frightened me as I was reading Dead Wake.  Larson introduces so many vibrant people with such hopes and aspirations that I couldn't bear to think that they had died, and died horribly.  Especially all of the children.  The Lusitania had a particularly large amount of little ones and pregnant women on board.  And in 1915, no one thought that baby life vests were a good idea.  Heck, the cruise lines were still grumbling about having to have adequate lifeboats after the Titanic.  And so the 1,198 lives lost off the coast of Ireland caused me great despair, and a continual sense of panic.

This is turning into something of a journaling exercise, but in order to understand how I feel about this book, I have to talk about how I experience art.  When my anxiety and depression started really disrupting my life in high school, I found that I would go months--even years--without going to the movie theater.  When I did go, I would be jittery, as if I would soon be riding a roller coaster and not sitting in a dark room with sticky floors, watching a story play out.  And afterwards, I would feel a deep and profound sadness in my soul, which, judging by the hollow feeling, is located underneath my sternum.  I would go home and cry because everything the characters experienced, I felt, but more so.  I can't watch movies where people die or are ill or fall in love because it is too real to me.  It's so very hard to explain.

And now, for a brief interlude

When I was in sixth grade, the movie Titanic came out.  I was two years younger than everyone in my class, so I was ten years old.  I wasn't really into boys yet.  My idea of a movie love story was something that happened to a Disney princess.

This year, though, everything was different.  The three other girls in my class (of ten--I went to a small school) were completely obsessed with Titanic.  Well, mostly with Leonardo DiCaprio.  I didn't want to be the weirdo who was left out (I was already kind of a weirdo, so things didn't need to get any worse), so I played along.  I begged my mom to let me see the movie even thought there were naked lady boobs in it.  After the first showing, I was also obsessed.  I thought it was perfect.  The love story was perfect.  The excitement of the ship pulling away from the dock made me cry because I knew the ship was going to sink. And the actual sinking?  Terrifying.  Yes, I still love "My Heart Will Go On," and if you mock me, have fun.  I'll be sitting here, uh, not caring.

I saw the movie in theaters three times, which may be a personal record (for theater showings, at least).  I had my first movie crush on Leo, with a weird secondary crush on Victor Garber, because I have a thing for older guys, I guess.  Plus Ioan Griffud played one of the officers who went back to look for survivors and woooo.  He was definitely the best part of Fantastic Four.

Now, when I think about that movie, I have conflicted feelings.  It was so melodramatic.  It was overwrought.  I can't even bring myself to watch it because all the love and death and suffering and cringe-y dialogue would overwhelm me.  And yet, despite my personal dislike for James Cameron, I admit that the visuals, combined with the score, were utterly compelling.  I can still see them in my mind.  I don't like thinking about shipwrecks because I see Jack's frozen body falling into the depths of the Atlantic (uh, spoiler, in case you didn't know).  I see the old couple on the bed, together, as the water rushes in underneath them.  I see the people kept in steerage left to die because they were somehow less than human by being poor or immigrants.

End of interlude ˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜*˜˜˜˜˜
Given all of that, reading Dead Wake emotionally devastated me, and more than once I had to put the book down because my breathing was fast and shallow, and my hands shaking.  The disgusting lack of regard for human life shown by the German U-Boats, the confluence of factors that fated Lusitania to cross U-20's path that morning, and the possible complicity of the British government appalled me to an extreme degree.  I was reminded that persons in positions of power play out their games with figures, not names.  With percentages, and not personalities.  The life of the individual means nothing in the horrible game of war.

The structure of Dead Wake follows that of Larson's previous books, with two alternating narratives: the Lusitania's voyage and the hunting trip of German U-Boat U-20 and its captain, Walther Schwieger.  Larson was able to read Schwieger's actual captain's log, so it's especially terrifying to read about how glorious it was to sink a ship because you were competing with other U-boat captains for tonnage sunk.  Never mind that human beings were on those ships.

It would be a bit silly to give a summary of the book, since it's all written in history.  But what you want are the nasty bits that the Makers of History would like to bury.  And contrary to what your (and my) high school history teacher told you, the sinking of the Lusitania did not push America immediately into WWI.  Woodrow Wilson was rather busy off doing the hanky-panky with his new wife, Edith.

This wasn't my favorite book by Larson; that honor goes unequivocally to The Devil in the White City.  However, everything he writes is meticulous, interesting, funny, and very, very human.  Do pick this one up, particularly if you're a history or maritime buff.  And until his next book, my heart will go on.


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