20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 5
I’ve started Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City twice and have yet to finish it. Devil in the White City tackles two stories simultaneously: the 1893 World’s Fair and the grisly murders of Dr. H.H. Holmes. The World’s Fair story is far more interesting than the other (surprisingly) so the back-and-forth is tedious. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Larson is focussed—all tangents, overviews, and factoids lead back to the Lusitania.
To his credit, Larson understands that nothing in history occurs in a vacuum. He frames the Lusitania’s construction and a biography of her captain within the naval advancements and attitudes of the era. He further chronicles the rise and changing purpose of the German U-Boats and provides an outline of World War I. As much attention is given to U-20, the submarine that sinks the Lusitania, as to the Lusitania itself. At times, though, Larson’s inclination to start each angle of the story ‘at the beginning’ leads him to include too much (the long passages concerning Wilson’s courtship of Edith Galt come to mind). The first half of the book sets the stage and the second moves at a frenetic pace, digging deep into politics, the war, and the events of May 7, 1915.
Larson makes a valiant effort to give a sense of the passengers on board the Lusitania. Some are vividly written, described by their own letters and a variety of biographical details. Others are only sketches, described by their height, profession, suit color, or contents of their luggage. The sense is that Larson has included every fragment of his research, no matter how fragmentary. I’d rather fewer passengers be described in greater depth than more with scant details. Some are seemingly mentioned only for bleak, observational humor:
There were parents sailing to rejoin their children, and children to rejoin their parents, and wives and fathers hoping to get back to their own families, as was the case with Mrs. Arthur Luck of Worcester, Massachusetts, traveling with her two sons, Kenneth Luck and Elbridge Luck, ages eight and nine, to rejoin her husband, a mining engineer who awaited them in England. Why in the midst of great events there always seems to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history. (97)
No matter how cursory, though, the book needs these humanizing elements. Without them, Dead Wake would be a slew of details and dates unconnected from what made the sinking of the Lusitania so unexpected and tragic: It was a passenger ship full of common, relatable people. Larson establishes that attacks against passenger ships were inconceivable at the time. Even the crews of merchant ships could expect a measure of safety:
Obeyed ever since by all seagoing powers, the rules held that a warship could stop a merchant vessel and search it but had to keep its crew safe and bring the ship to a nearby port, where a “prize court” would determine its fate. The rules forbade attacks against passenger vessels. (31)
You can see where submarines will cause a wrinkle—they carry too few men to seize a ship and they can’t take on additional passengers. Even so, “The use of submarines to attack unarmed merchant ships without warning, [Churchill] wrote, would be ‘abhorrent to the immemorial law and practice of the sea.'” (31) But passenger ships remained a separate issue, held more inviolate than merchant ships. Though German threats to the Lusitania were published the morning she set sail, few passengers lost sleep over them. They believed the Lusitania was too fast and would be well-protected as she approached Liverpool, but in reality they were traveling at reduced speed and without a convoy.
The sense of dread throughout as U-20 approaches the Lusitania is more intense than in any other book that comes to mind. It only intensifies when the reader remembers Dead Wake is non-fiction. With short chapters, Larson switches between the Lusitania’s story and the movements of U-20, drawing the two ships closer and closer. U-20’s narrative is packed with submarine trivia and anecdotes; it’s claustrophobic and fascinating at first, but horrifying by the end.
Where Larson’s reseach into personal correspondence and details shines is in developing Captains Turner (Lusitania) and Schwieger (U-20). The latter is introduced in a chapter called “The Happiest U-Boat” and seems normal, astonishingly so. By all accounts he was a good leader, trusted by his men, and responsible for a positive and productive tone on U-20. I confess that I expected a cartoonish villian as the antagonist, but Larson’s insistence on making Schwieger a person at the outset made me question why and how someone so seemingly normal could sink a passenger ship, wartime or not. There’s no answer, which adds to the unsettling tone of the book.
Larson’s writing feels fictional with its colorful use of conversation and dialogue. Like his other books, “anything between quotation marks comes from a memoir, letter, telegram, or other historical document.” (xix) His writing makes history feel both close and far away—close, because of the intense detail; far, because it’s easy to mistake this book for fiction in its most engaging moments. Having WWI ever-present in the background grounds the story, but adds to the sense of despair:
Each side had been confident of a victory within months, but by the end of 1914 the war had turned into a macabre stalemate marked by battles in which tens of thousands of men died and neither side gained ground. The first of the great named battles were fought that autumn and winter—the Frontiers, Mons, Marne, and the First Battle of Ypres. By the end of November, after four months of fighting, the French army had suffered 306,000 fatalities, roughly equivalent to the 1910 population of Washington, D.C. The German toll was 241,000. By year’s end a line of parallel trenches, constituting the western front, ran nearly five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, separated in places by a no-man’s-land of as little as 25 yards. (28)
Overall: 4.8 I can’t name a more intense book. I feel a pang of guilt for “enjoying” Dead Wake given its tragic subject matter, which makes me wonder if the pacing is gratuitous. Larson revels in the “what ifs” and does everything possible to mine tension. I don’t think this undercuts the book’s veracity (it’s plainly well-researched), but there’s no denying it was written with an eye toward entertainment value.
Translation: Read it.
20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books
15 to go!