Author: Erik Larson
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
Larson is in fine form, weaving together the small details of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, a history of the ship, an overview of international relations, a truncated bit of biography of President Wilson during WWI before the US entered the Great War, a peak into Great Britain's Room 40 as it secretly read Germany's encrypted messages, and an exploration of the captain of submarine U-20 on the patrol that would bring it into a fateful meeting with the Lusitania.
Where the fate of the ship is so widely known, Larson must work hard to build the suspense. He does this ably by making sure the reader is introduced to enough individuals to make their journey across the Atlantic fraught, as you begin to wonder who will and won't survive, and start picturing the agony that passengers and crew would feel if separated from siblings, lovers, spouses, friends, or children.
As Larson puts together the larger picture and sets the scene, we range from German U-boat captains, to a widowed Woodrow Wilson, to a pugnacious Winston Churchill, to a ship's crew lacking extensive experience. He lets us in on the reasons for various passengers' trips, describes the treasures they brought with them, and what they hoped for out of the Atlantic crossing.
Interspersed with the intensely human details are lovingly rendered descriptions of the ship, and worrying revelations about the German's intentions toward Atlantic shipping and the uneven protection offered by the British Admiralty in response. The reader gets a very focused examination of a small part of World War I, seeing how warfare was beginning to change, how targets that were not wholly military were being stalked and that civilians were quickly becoming casualties.
With disaster looming, the reader knows that the Lusitania is speeding toward Britain but that its final destination will not be a dock but a sinking. At least 80% of the book covers the lead up to that disaster. And when the torpedoes strike, the reader is likewise struck with how luck (good for the U-boat, bad for the Lusitania) plays such a role in the event.
Larson's description of the 18 minutes between torpedo strike and ultimate sinking are gripping, harrowing, and somber. He recounts impossible decisions: do you first rescue your sleeping child one deck below or your playing toddler one deck above; do you take the step off of the rail even though you can't swim; is there time to retrieve a life vest; should you search the ship for loved ones or get onto a lifeboat; do you lift one more floating person into a raft and risk capsizing it? Through use of interviews and written accounts by survivors, as well as diaries from passengers, Larson has masterfully recounted events (and personalities) leading up to the event, the reality of the sinking ship and struggle for life itself, and the aftermath.
And that aftermath manages to be troubling, confusing, mournful, and hopeful at once. Most troubling was the British Admiralty's immediate decision to try to blame the entire event on Captain Turner (the man in charge of the Lusitania), despite the fact that the Admiralty itself ignored some clear warnings and did not provide basic escorts for the Lusitania's protection. Suggested reasons abound, ranging from conspiracies to try to force America's hand and make them join the war to too jealously protecting intelligence to mere ineptitude.
For the passengers themselves, after the sinking it meant waiting for rescue in cold water (some dying of hypothermia), finding out that companions had died, having to identify bodies. And for relatives of the passengers, there was a long wait to get word, and rife confusion where some were told their loved ones had died when they were in fact alive, or worse, that they were alive when they were actually dead.
But for all the despair, there were fortunate reunions, husbands and wives, and two brothers in the crew. And of course bittersweet moments where some, but not all, of a family survived, or one person surviving where a companion perished.
Despite the tragedy and some British strategists' beliefs that the 100+ deaths of American citizens would drive the country out of its isolationism, it would be years yet before America entered the war. Regardless, the sinking of the Lusitania was a bellwether of changing norms and, when America finally did get off the fence, still something that struck the heart of the nation.