If my high school and college history instructors had treated the past with the detail, drama and insight Erik Larson has engaged in Dead Wake (his masterful record of the last voyage of the Lusitania), I may have held William the Conqueror, the War of the Roses and the Pripet Marshes in higher regard.
As it is, I loathe them all.
Dead Wake is not an academic recital of the last voyage of the world’s fastest and most opulent steamship; it is portrait of the West during World War One, a marvelous commentary on the mood and mores of early 20th century America and a narration of hundreds of personal accounts at sea—some tragic, many inspiring—of the fated ship’s last complement of passengers…
• A young American couple on their way to Liverpool meet on board, enjoy each other’s company at sea until their relationship ends abruptly when a torpedo strikes the Lusitania and only one survives.
• A young mother, at that same terrible moment, must choose between rushing up top to find her six-year-old or scrambling below decks to save her infant child.
• A honeymoon couple catches a break, it seems, when, last minute, Cunard cancels their passage from a smaller, slower steamship bound for England to the fastest, most luxurious passenger ship in the world.
• The purse of one of the Lusitania’s non-survivors is recovered off the coast of Ireland containing a virtual journal of her shipboard experiences up to and including the Lusitania’s last day afloat.
• Two brothers, separated after the sinking, wire their father afterwards, “I survived,” then spend days haunting ad hoc morgues searching for the other, certain he is dead, until they meet by amazing coincidence.
Dead Wake is a fantastic read for non-fiction buffs. It includes numerous, detailed, enlightening and even entertaining footnotes and amounts to, in every way, gripping, five-star history.