This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.
I’ve just read three disturbing historical novels in the past three days, and I am most definitely reeling right now. It started with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, a historical fiction novel about a plague of yellow fever in Pittsburgh; then I re-read Margaret Peterson Haddix’s devastating Uprising, which is all about three fictional girls (two of whom die gruesome deaths by the end) and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. And now there’s Dead Wake, which is the most devastating of all because it both focuses on such a huge calamity (two thousand dead!) and describes in painfully exquisite detail the deaths of actual people.
I just . . . ugh. I can’t believe I went through a Titanic obsession a few years ago. How could I derive any sort of enjoyment from analyzing the horrible, traumatic deaths of so many people? Somehow with this book – which I thought I’d enjoy because I used to like studying the Titanic – I see now the true horror of these maritime disasters in a way that I never did with the Titanic. The macabre picture Larson paints is just too sick for words, and I really don’t even want to think about it.
This is a review, though, so I can’t just stop there. I’m going to move away from the actual disaster, which takes place in just the final third of the work, and talk about the book as a whole.
Before now, I would have said that only two nonfiction books stuck completely with the facts and still read like fictional novels. One of these is Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov, a vivid depiction of the last Romanovs drawn from a variety of firsthand accounts and intimate photos; the other is Walter Lord’s classic account of the sinking of the Titanic, titled A Night to Remember. Both of these books are amazing, and are the first titles I suggest whenever people ask me for titles on either of those topics. Now I must add Dead Wake to this list, because it is the most stunningly intimate and up-front look you’re ever going to get at the Lusitania disaster. You read about the passengers themselves, of course, but you also get to read a little bit about the politics at play behind the scenes; about the British government decoders who knew the general whereabouts of German submarines near the Lusitania but mysteriously neglected to warn anyone; about the rules Germans had for their submarine captains (basically “shoot whatever ships you want, and we’ll track your success by measuring how many tons you sink); about Schwieger, the “kind-hearted” submarine captain who once rescued a dog from a ship’s wreckage but saved none of the Lusitania passengers.
I can’t speak for Larson’s historical accuracy, because this is the first book I’ve ever read about the sinking of the Lusitania. I usually don’t read about man-made disasters, because it upsets me so much to see the pain we inflict on each other. Having read many historical nonfiction books in the past, though, this certainly reads like an excellently-researched book – it seems that Larson has done a lot of legwork, and it’s obvious from the four-page bibliography (and 25-page Notes section!) that he did a very thorough job with his sources; it didn’t all just come straight off of Wikipedia. In the author’s note in the back, Larson even talks about how he was very careful to trace every historical claim back to its origins to make sure he used only facts in his account and not just commonly-repeated lies. I for one am more than satisfied, and only the true history buffs are possibly going to be able to poke holes in Larson’s interpretation of the event.
At the end of the day, though, forget the squabbles over minor historical details – I’m just left gaping in shock at how terribly cruel humans can be to each other. I shudder at the descriptions that aren’t leaving my head any time soon, at the pictures of small children’s corpses that I saw when I made the stupidly typed “Lusitania victims” into Google Images (hint: don’t do that). Dead Wake is a stunningly evocative book, and I’m warning you now: only read it if you have the stomach for a front-row look at such a terrible tragedy.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.