Book 42: Dead Wake

 

"A Cunard captain was supposed to be much more than a mere navigator. Resplendent in his uniform and cap, he was expected to exude assurance competence, and gravitas. But a captain also served a role less easy to define. He was three parts mariner, one part club director. He was to be a willing guide for first-class passengers wishing to learn more about the mysteries of the ship; he was to preside over dinner with prominent passengers; he was to walk the ship and engage passengers in conversation about the weather, their reasons for crossing the Atlantic, the books they were reading."

Dates read: April 11-16, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Sometimes I find myself wondering about historical what-ifs. Like, what if Adolf Hitler's art career had taken off and he'd never gotten involved in politics? What if Joseph Stalin had gotten in a bar brawl as a young man and been killed? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten a bad stomach flu the day that JFK visited Dallas and spent the whole day in the bathroom? Our history, our whole world would have been a very different place. But different is not necessarily the same as better, and you never know if that alternate history would have ended up even worse somehow (although it's hard to imagine so in some cases).

Since it came so close to not happening at all, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is one of the most tempting what-ifs of all. Do we look back on World War I now and see Europe as a powder keg ready to blow, with the assassination as just the spark that happened to ignite it? Sure. But maybe there never would have been a spark at all. Maybe there would have been a diplomatic solution to the problem. Maybe not, and maybe it very well could have been something else that pushed it all over the edge. But we live in this world, where World War I did happen, and in the course of that war, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk.

I didn't know anything about the ship (or honestly, much about the war or the players) before I started reading this book. My history major husband was able to fill in some of the blanks for me, but most of what I now know about the time period and the Lusitania and the circumstances that led to it being torpedoed and sank came from Erik Larson's Dead Wake. The information is well-researched and well-presented. Larson takes multiple threads: the ship, its captain and crew, some of the passengers, the u-boat that sunk it and its captain, President Woodrow Wilson trying to keep America out of the war, British naval intelligence, and draws them together, weaving the story slowly and surely towards the sinking. You know it's coming, but Larson masterfully creates tension with his narrative and the torpedoing feels like a shock.

Oftentimes historical non-fiction (especially when it's about military events) feels academic, but Dead Wake reads like a story that just happens to be real. I was glad to get the opportunity to read more about World War I in a way that was engaging and compelling...it's piqued my interest in the time period, and isn't that what good writing should do? Make you want to learn and read even more? I know I'll be looking to acquire copies of the rest of Larson's work (I already have a few, but I want them all!) so I can enjoy his wonderful storytelling. This is a true non-fiction novel and honestly a joy to read.

Tell me, blog friends...what historical what-if really gets your brain going?

 **I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Broadway Books, through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and honest review**

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