To read an Erik Larson book is to live in the past — the exciting and interesting past — for just a little while.
Readers have followed Larson (no relation to this writer) into the turbulent wind and water of the 1900 hurricane on Galveston Island in “Isaac’s Storm,” the excitement of the 1893 World’s Fair in “The Devil in the White City,” and the rise of Nazi Germany in “In the Garden of Beasts.”
For his most recent book, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” Larson made two voyages himself, crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2.
“Such a big part of the book was a voyage that I needed a sense of what it was like to be on board a ship in the middle of ocean,” he said. “It was very worthwhile. Nothing quite prepares you for that feeling of — I don’t want to say loneliness — but you know that if something awful happens, help won’t be coming any time soon. These days, you’re required to try on your life jacket and go to your lifeboat station. It really gets your attention. Unfortunately, the folks on the Lusitania did not do that.”
Larson describes the doomed 1915 voyage in intimate and fascinating detail — the character of the ship’s captain, the passengers undertaking the trip with their various hopes and dreams and a bit of trepidation about a new invention called the U-boat, the books they read, the things they smelled and saw, the food they ate.
“Life on a ship is so different,” Larson said. “The overall experience of how time passes and compresses as you pass time zones, the importance of things like food. There’s not that much to do in your life. It gets a little boring, so food becomes very important.”
Like all historians, Larson loves his time in the archives, the tactile evidence of lives lived, or in some cases, lives lost.
One bit of physical evidence was especially meaningful.
“One of the most important objects that helped me decide to do the book came fairly early on,” he said. “I was in an archive in California, an exploratory trip to see what was in the Hoover Institution at Stanford. And the archivist put this piece of wood on the table next to me. It was a plank from one of the Lusitania’s lifeboats, found next to one of the people who’d survived the sinking.
“I need tactile contact with the past,” he said. “It reassures you that things actually did happen. You get this kind of weird feeling when you touch something like that. And as for the rest of it … I knew I had something new I could bring to the party.”
Of course, Larson devoted considerable time and energy to researching the cause of the Lusitania’s sinking.
“The submarine was such a novel weapon,” he said. “A brand new weapon, to the extent that navies didn’t know how to use it, didn’t realize how these things would change warfare. When you have a brand new weapon, you don’t know what may happen. It completely revolutionized warfare.”
The torpedo attack killed almost 1,200 of the 1,900 passengers and crew, including 123 Americans, eventually triggering the United States’ entrance into World War I.
The title of the book comes from an archaic maritime term.
“Dead wake is the name for the disturbance that’s left in the water after a vessel has passed. It lingers for a very long time. I loved the term; it could be applied to the track of a torpedo, the long, long wake that trailed behind the thing.”
One of the most compelling scenes in the book has passengers watching the torpedo’s approach, seeing its dead wake.
“They did see the thing coming. I was struck by many accounts of that happening,” Larson said. “After the deep fog had lifted and left behind a beautiful spring day, the sea was absolutely glassy, and suddenly there are these passengers who all along were worried about whether they would encounter a sub. Here they were, near the coast, feeling safe, thinking all is good. And then those people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, look off the ship and see the thing coming. Not only that — there’s this one guy who comments on how beautiful it is.”
Regarding his next subject, Larson is presently casting about in what he calls “the dark country of no ideas.”
He loves the Gilded Age, the two decades before and after 1900.
“I’m very interested in that transition, that progressive era. It yields terrific stories, that sense that anything was possible, especially in America … And when you’ve got hubris, you’ve got tragedy.”
He is looking for an interesting narrative arc, an event with archival presence, a subject of some moral complexity.
And then there will be a moment when he sees his way clear to the future.
In ‘Dead Wake,’ he asked himself one question: “I think of what would I do on a ship with my wife and three daughters and it sinks in 18 minutes. The story very quickly falls into place.” And then passes on to legions of loyal readers.
Susan Larson is the host of The Reading Life on WWNO-NPR and the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.