On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania, at that time the world’s largest passenger ship, set sail from New York, headed for Liverpool. Of the 1,959 passengers who went to sea with her, only 761 would ever feel land under their feet again. On May 7, as most of us probably remember from about two sentences in a history book in high school, the Lusitania was struck and sunk by a single torpedo from a German U-boat — an important incident, as it marked the moment the Germans changed the protocols of war (from”Hey, don’t sink civilians, you jerks,” to “Sink whomever you want; it’s a goddamn war”), which, along with the fact 123 American passengers died, is what finally got the U.S. to engage.
Erik Larson has written two of my favorite non-fiction books of all time: Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City. In both those books, he employed a similar narrative device: the weaving of a fascinating historical story (the invention of the wireless for the first, the Chicago World’s Fair for the second) with a crime story about a super-creepy sociopath. Larson’s last book, In the Garden of Beasts, veered from that pattern, and, in my opinion, it suffered from it. While still an interesting story, there wasn’t anything terribly compelling or unique about it. I was disappointed.
When I heard he was about to release a new book, this time about the Lusitania, I was hopeful we might be in for a return to form. After all, the sociopath’s story line here was pretty clear: Walther Schweiger, the notorious captain of U-20: the man who sank a ship packed with children, families, artists, writers, and other civilians headed to England for business or pleasure.
Unfortunately, this book ended up being disappointing overall as well. What the hell is going on over there, Mr. Larson?
The story actually weaves together four stories: the stories of the passengers/crew of both ships (Lusitania, U-20), the story of the British Admiralty, and the story of Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance, by far the least relevant and most distracting element of the book (mostly all that treacly tangential confection did was make me wonder if we really should’ve let a guy that mopily lovesick make such important decisions about things like war; and I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”). I can’t even be bothered to say anything more about that entire subplot, it was so out of place in this narrative. What a slog.
More problematic, though, is that most of the passages set on the Lusitania were dry and drab, overloaded with tedious details about what people were wearing — and I mean everything they were wearing, from their hats to their shoes, as though he’d found their luggage inventory lists and thought, what the heck, might as well throw those in too — as well as how bored they were. Right about the time Larson writes, “The usual shipboard tedium began to set in,” I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with him.
Though the book tells the stories of some interesting “lost” faces of history, like Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat and pioneering female architect Theodate Pope, since he never sits with a single passenger long enough to let us truly get to know them, it’s hard to build any kind of emotional connection to anyone on board, or to the passengers as a whole. When the ship goes down, it’s terrible, it’s horrible, it’s tragic — but what it isn’t is moving. And that, I would argue, is more Larson’s fault than mine.
THAT SAID. The other two story lines in this book are utterly gripping and, I would argue, make the whole thing worth a read even if you have to skim the other sections to get yourself to the end.
The first section of interest is: every single second set on that U-boat, where life is described in riveting detail: the stifling heat on board, particularly when the ship was submerged; the “basal reek” of 36 unwashed men wearing leather uniforms that didn’t breathe; the part where the toilets exploded if you flushed them while the ship was underwater (a prank often pulled on n00bs, resulting in “the scent of a cholera hospital”); the dogs and puppies Captain Schweiger had a soft spot for; that time they sink a ship loaded with horses and Schweiger describes watching one of them fight to swim, unable to do anything to help it as it kicked and thrashed about in the water, eventually throwing itself onto one of the life boats, with predictably disastrous results.
These passages are brilliant and they’re among the most engaging things I’ve read all year, packed with the Larson’s clean, transportive writing and a degree of detail that reflects what must have been a veritable shit-ton, pardon my English, of research. Unlike the passengers on the Lusi, Schweiger and his men become real people, putting the reader in the uncomfortable position of kind of liking them. I haven’t felt myself so conflicted by my feelings by a bunch of asshole Nazis since Das Boot.
The other part worth taking a look at — and something I’m now really interested in reading more about — is the controversy described regarding the role of the British Admiralty in the sinking of the Lusitania. The Admiralty — specifically the intelligence group they called “Room 40” — had gotten their hands on a German code book, and were busily decoding messages when they started to encounter signs that a passenger ship flying a British flag was in danger of being targeted. They knew all about Schweiger (were, in fact, decoding his messages too), and they knew exactly where both U-20 and the Lusitania were. The connection was pretty clear. The risk was pretty obvious.
Yet — they said nothing.
Why? Well, Larson has two theories, one of which he clearly supports more than the other. It was either because: 1) they were afraid that alerting the Lusitania would reveal to the Germans they had one of their code books (which would make the Germans, then, change up the code book; fair enough, I suppose, though 1,198 passengers and crew might beg to differ), or, 2), as Larson appears to believe, they actually wanted U-20 to go ahead and sink the Lusi, because they knew it would be the thing that, at long last, pulled the U.S. into the war.
Larson offers a lot of evidence supporting that latter theory (though, I should note, he doesn’t quite outright say, “This was all Churchill’s doing!”), much of it’s pretty compelling, and all of it was news to me.
And so, for the sake of this section and the sections on board the U-20 alone, at least for those of you intrigued by history and/or fascinated by wartime conspiracy theories, this book is worth picking up. Trust me, though, when I tell you you can just breeze yourselves right through all the parts set on board the Lusi (though, I did find Theodate Pope’s story interesting, so watch for her name) and everything about Wilson’s coup de foudre. You won’t be missing much worth catching, I’m afraid, and it’s mostly just going to get in your way.
Here’s hoping Larson returns, in his next book, to the kind of storytelling he does best (or, at least: better). I’m still in, though I’ll be wary.
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