Summer (Bedside) Reading: Week 4

Jul 21, 2016 | by Lindsey James

I am an adult-onset non fiction lover. Before I graduated from college, (which is arguably when you actually become an adult, not at 18, and even then, it often takes a few more years to be able to at least pretend you’ve figured something out), I would sooner pick up a porcupine, bristly side up, than pick up a nonfiction book. But suddenly, at 22, I became interested in things that actually happened, maybe not as much as fiction, but something had shifted. Now, I always have one at hand. Here is one that had me turning pages like Harry Potter did, and that, my friends, is a badge of honor.

But the real question is, have you ever been so into a book that you forgot how long you’d been laying outside on a beach (I was on vacation, I’m not usually on beaches) with your back facing the sun, and wound up with a terrible, shirt preventing, aloe thirsty, almost blue looking sun burn?

No? Same, me neither. I was just asking.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson

The great thing about Erik Larson is that even though he’s writing non-fiction and only using real quotes and real sources, (generally, a recipe for a very dry sandwich of a book), his work is far from your high school history professor’s lectures. And if you’re reading on any kind of digital device, you might think you have 30% of the book left, but oh how wrong you are. The back 30% is reserved for resources, so just brace yourself for wind down around 65%. Wish someone had warned me…if my Kindle had had pages to aggressively flip through I would’ve done it.

Admittedly, it took me a couple of chapters to get into it. I’m usually one for juicy opening lines that lead us right into the middle of things, (“in medias res” to anyone who’s into literature buzz words), teasing us with pronouns instead of names, vague timelines, and certainly no precise locations. Let’s take examples from two of the previous books we’ve talked about here, Everything I Never Told You which opens with “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Really grabs you right? While The Secret History, which, in a similar vein, opens with “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.” Sentence #2, here we come.

But this book opens with “On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bride and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings.” Immediately we get when, who, and where, which I usually hate. I love the satisfyingly frustrating process of peeling away layers, finding out who a character is, and where they exist in the world, slowly. But, I guess, that kind of thing defeats the purpose of non-fiction. I pressed onward.


Dead Wake chronicles the journey of the Lusitania, a forgotten younger sister of the ship that sank 3 years earlier, almost to the day, the Titanic. Living up to a disaster of that magnitude was a tall order, and that, arguably, is why this story is often forgotten.

Larson’s prose is deliberate, measured, and intricate, seamlessly alternating between the Lusitania and the German U-Boat that would later sink it. But it isn’t simply about the two fated ships, but the people who inhabited them. If the ships are the bones, the characters are the flesh and blood. The two leaders, Captain William Thomas Turner, of the Lusitania, and Commander Walter Schwieger of the U-20, carry the narrative, but the passengers who, for the dead, had no idea that they would never make it to their destination, and for the survivors, were on the precipice of a horrific detour.

A master at building tension, even though you already know the ending, Larson carries you through the journey. You end up caring about these people, and you begin to understand the magnitude of loss, both of human life and of human artifacts. And oddly, you understand the view of the opposition. And though I think many would disagree with what Schwieger did, understanding does not mean agreement.

The collision of fates and chance, almost as violent and jarring as the collision of the torpedo with the hull of the great ship, is one of those historical moments of, put simply, right place, right time. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. A combination of angle, timing, and the simple flow of ocean tides. Larson pulls this gothic tale from the depths of history, and he does it well, very well.

If, like me, it doesn’t grab you right away, then hang in there. Pretty soon you won’t be able to put it down, and if you’re reading outside, use sunscreen.