By now we have all come to know and love Erik Larson.
We love his personal-interest stories set in a dramatic and glamorous past. In the Garden of Beasts recreated 1930’s Berlin and the early Nazi regime – a time when Hitler’s grip on power was shaky and some chance remained for sanity. Devil in the White City portrays the Chicago World Fair and the psychopath who stalked it. A world that was picking up speed and technology; yet despite the “progress” evil lurks in the shadows…
Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania and the German U-boat which sunk her. All the usual Erik Larson-isms are here: it’s a reconstruction of a past era, with all the glamour and romance that can be summoned stuffed in. And it works. We are introduced to the Edwardian World colliding with the cruel, industrial reality of WWI. An era of elegance, order and confidence is in the process of being shattered. Odd as that sounds, this was my aspect of the book.
There is the rich socialite, the play-boy millionaire, the ship’s captain, the scholar, and the usual assortment of early 20th century characters. All are doomed or miraculously saved. Hardly anyone seems to take the threat of being sunk too seriously. Neither the Cunard Line, nor the British Admiralty seem terribly concerned over the Lusitania. Doom, however, is in the air.
At least a quarter of the book follows the U-boat and its background and voyage to its fateful meeting with the Lusitania. It’s a totally different universe from the one on board the cruise liner; it portrays two different ways of seeing the world in collision. The story of the U-boats is fascinating: it was a new, unproven weapon of war, but one where there seemed to be no real defence. Anyone who has seen Das Boot knows what to expect.
The final big section is the actual sinking of the Lusitania, the struggle to survive by the passengers, and their eventual rescue. There is some disaster porn here: watch as the orderly Edwardian world onboard the liner turns into chaos and disorder. There are lifeboats, but the lifeboats require: 1. a trained crew willing to follow orders, 2. officers that know what they are doing, 3. a ship that is not listing in any way, 4. orderly passengers willing to follow orders. Of course, on a ship which has been torpedoed, this is impossible. You can pretty much guess from this how things went.
Those who survived, survived by chance.
All in all, this book is enjoyable, and if you like Erik Larson, this is just another instalment of what you have come to expect from him.