As the famed ocean liner Lusitania made its swift descent into the ocean off the coast of Ireland after being struck by a single torpedo from a German U-boat, a Canadian newlywed named Margaret Gwyer got caught in the flotsam of debris just flung into the ocean from the ship's decks. She was sucked into one of the 24-foot-wide funnels that had once risen in giant splendor along the spine of the Lusitania, now sinking swiftly, like the rest of the ship, into the sea.
Moments after Gwyer was pulled into the smokestack, a final eruption of steam from one of the engines far below sent her hurling right back out into the ocean. So blackened with soot that her own husband didn't recognize her when they were reunited, Gwyer nonetheless survived the tragedy.
Of the many ways to tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania, fans of Erik Larson, author of some of the best page-turning histories of the recent past ("The Devil in the White City," "In the Garden of Beasts," "Isaac's Storm"), will not be surprised to learn that he has chosen to place the narrative in the hands of those, like Gwyer, most intimately involved in the disaster. Gathering letters, diaries, ships' logs and government documents, Larson sets readers not only with the passengers on the decks of the Lusitania, but at the periscope of the German U-boat that sunk her, in the mind of the lovesick Woodrow Wilson trying to avoid conflict with Germany and in the offices of the British Admiralty, whose neglect of the poor Lusitania was scandalous.
Many will remember the sinking of the ship from long-ago history classes detailing causes of America's entry into World War I. Few will recall specifics of the story. In early May 1915, a British ocean liner carrying nearly 2,000 people — primarily a mix of Brits and Canadians with about 200 Americans onboard as well — sailed from New York toward Liverpool.
The ship was one of the great luxury ocean liners of its day. Lurking in the waters off the shores of Ireland, directly in the ship's path, was a German U-boat, ready, willing and able to sink any British ship that passed.
More than 1,200 people were killed when they intersected, and outrage against Germany ensued. But there were complexities to the story. Why had the Admiralty not sent destroyers to guard the Lusitania as it neared Irish waters? Why did it seek to blame the poor captain for the disaster? What would be the U.S. response to this blatant act of war?
By choosing to tell a story that most people already know — however vaguely — Larson risks losing impatient readers who open the book anticipating an immediate bang. But stick with the innocents sailing on the luxurious decks of the Lusitania and Larson will eventually take you down the ship's funnel and blast you right back out. "Dead Wake" is a fine book. Larson breathes life into narrative history like few writers working today.
Tim Brady's latest book is "A Death in San Pietro: The Untold Story of Ernie Pyle, John Huston, and the Fight for Purple Heart Valley." He lives in St. Paul.