The Lusitania’s final voyage, breathlessly told

They said the Lusitania couldn’t be sunk. The German telegrams to the contrary were merely cheap scare tactics. Besides, England will provide protection once in their heavily guarded waters. The boat is simply too big to sink. There are plenty of lifeboats, enough for the entire passenger list. Even those in steerage!

And the best one — there are Americans on board. Germany wouldn’t risk dragging her into war.

The excuses made by the passengers and crew of the Lusitania seem strikingly naive now, almost 100 years to that May 7th afternoon when the premier vessel of the Cunard fleet was taken down — by a single German torpedo — and brought to the bottom of the ocean in all of 18 minutes.

The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University
The deck of the Lusitania, 1905-07, courtesy SMU Central University

Dead Wake, the captivating new narrative non-fiction by Erik Larson, follows the tragic fate of the Lusitania from four sectors.  In England, a group of cryptoanalysts in shadowy Room 40  attempt to crack German messages as their U-boats began prowling through British-controlled waters. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson, still mourning the loss of his wife, attempts to keep American neutrality intact in the face of growing threats.

But the two central perspectives are what grant Dead Wake its lurching, inevitable dread.  And Larson switches between them like the dance of predator and prey in a nature documentary.

The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich
The Lusitania on one of its early voyages, 1906, courtesy Royal Museum Greenwich

In New York, docked at Chelsea Piers, passengers from all walks of life board the Lusitania, ready for leisure and occupied with trivial affairs of the day. The bookseller Charles Lauriat Jr. boards with a valise of valuable literary works. Theodate Pope, the spirited, independent woman who’s clearly Larson’s favorite,  hits the decks with her mysterious male companion Edwin Friend. A pregnant Bronx woman named Margaret Kay boards with her young son Robert, destined to get the measles.  An entire family with the last name of Luck boards the ship, never a good sign in these kinds of books.

And then there’s the enigmatic Preston Prichard, a Canadian medical student described in such striking, beatific terms that it spells doom for him almost immediately.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the other narrative course follows the U-20 submarine captained by Walther Schwieger, a stern and sometimes unforgiving man in charge of a lonely vessel cutting through the waters of the Irish Sea.  Submarine warfare was primitive by nature and callous by design. Captains gauged the success of a mission not by numbers of ships sunk, but the amount of tonnage destroyed. Human lives were lightly considered.

Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard
Sinking of the Lusitania, European postcard

Larson is best known for a certain flamboyant style of storytelling, meshing two or more sometimes unrelated story arcs to create a swelling crescendo of melodrama. His books bristle with energy even when artificially cultivated. His best known book, The Devil In the White City, works entirely because of this particular narrative mechanism, weaving together the tales of the Chicago World’s Fair and a ruthless serial killer

But in Dead Wake, it’s the inevitable confrontation between the Lusitania and the U-20 that drives the story, and Larson finely manages the tension.

He prefers to spend time with lesser known people aboard the Lusitania and barely looks at its most famous passengers — Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt or the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman. Once the torpedo hits, you’re genuinely invested in situations all throughout the boat.

The book has a cinematic feel and comparisons with the film Titanic will surely be made.  You can almost feel the urge to transform passengers like Pope or Prichard into the next Rose or Jack.  But the story never lapses into phoniness or boisterous, over-descriptive speculation for long. There are thankfully few of those artificial “she felt the wind in her hair” moments that hamper other narrative non-fiction book events. Larson is the master of this particular genre, and once the torpedo hits the ocean liner on that fateful May afternoon, he’s in full control of the story.

When you get to Dead Wake‘s halfway point, prepare to keep your afternoon open, because you won’t want to put it down.

Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Crown Publishers