The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
Whoa, what a ride! Larson’s fourth book is a doozy. After reading but not loving his last work, In the Garden of the Beasts, I was nervous about this one. It more than exceeded my expectations! Larson has a talent for pairing his meticulous research with compelling stories and salacious details. The tale of the Lusitania was ripe for the telling and he timed it perfectly with the 100 anniversary of the sinking.
The author made the voyage and disaster come alive by choosing a few individuals to focus on. We followed them through their entire journey. We see them board, learned their background and the reason why they were traveling. We knew who was waiting for them at home and then we watched the inevitable unfold.
We also learned about the Lusitania’s captain (Turner) and the captain of the U-boat that brought their destruction. Larson took us all the way through the sinking and into the aftermath. We learned who lived and died and what happened in the years that followed. Structuring the book this way put a few faces onto the historical event. It gave the book a depth of emotion that would have been missing if he’d only focused on factual details instead of personal details too. By the time we reach the critical moment you are so invested in the characters that you’ve met that the suspense is palpable.
In the opening chapters we’re introduced to Theodate Pope, a female architect and suffragette, Dwight Harris who carried both an engagement ring and custom life belt on board the ship. Then there was a Vanderbilt who had narrowly missed sailing on the Titanic. There was also a bookseller named Lauriat, carrying a priceless copy of A Christmas Carol that Dickens himself had owned!
A few interesting tidbits:
- Georg von Trapp (he of The Sound of Music fame) was an Austrian U-boat commander and torpedoed a French cruiser, killing 684 sailors!
- Captain Turner testified in the Titanic trial to determine who should receive compensation for their losses.
- There was a Confederate submarine during the Civil War and three crews were killed just trying to get it to work.
- During WWII the Russians managed to get three copies of the German code book and gave one of them to the British
BOTTOM LINE: Just fantastic. Some nonfiction authors have a hard time restraining themselves from telling readers EVERY single detail that they discovered about a subject. But the best ones leave you fascinated with the subject and even wanting to know more about it. Erik Larson is one of the best and this particular book was a great example of his skill combining with an enthralling story.
"When Death is as close as he was then, the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that." – One of the survivors.
*I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Image from here.