Three Star review, posted here on August 2, 2016.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that my 3 star rating is a very personal review, and shouldn’t discourage others from reading this book. If you are interested in this book, then you should go ahead and read it.
I really like Larson, and there are plenty of things that he does really well here that should come as no surprise to any of his readers. The most impressive, of course, is the immense amount of detailed research that goes into every sentence of every page, and the ability to present this research as personal narratives. Larson presents the time period and the surroundings from various points of view that paint a complex picture of single moment in time, from the impractical outfits being worn in New York in the week leading up to the sinking, to the dog-friendly and music-friendly life aboard the U-boat, to the disconcerting one-torpedo vs two-torpedo discrepancy and what it implies.
The greater narrative woven throughout the book is the story of how and why things can go so horribly wrong, and how and why we assign blame as we do. The basic gist is that that ship should never have been in a position to be sunk. There were plenty of red flags. But these red flags were either ignored, concealed, or never made it to the people who most needed to see them. And then, spoiler alert (but not really, cuz it’s not exactly surprising), the blame went to the most blameless.
So all that was good, and I would still recommend checking this out if you’re already interested in the subject matter, and then you can judge it for yourself. But for me, personally, I just never really got into this one the way I have gotten into other Larson books. A large part of this, admittedly, is the environment in which I began reading it- jetlagged, exhausted, and surrounded by lots of distractions. I’ve never really been into ships/boats/etc. so some of those chapters were especially difficult to engage with, and I wound up just skimming over them. The detailed descriptions of various individual passengers were interesting enough on their own, but eventually they all blurred together for me. The President Wilson storyline just never drew me in at all, most likely because Wilson was a racist and so I had a hard time relating to his “aw shucks, I love my sweetheart” storyline, but also because it seemed too tangential to warrant so much attention. We track every motion of the U-boat for the prior week, which is obviously relevant, but also got really redundant and thus zoned me out even more (here’s each chapter summed up: they wanted to sink something, but they did not sink anything). We don’t get to the actual sinking until maybe 2/3 of the way through the book, which would be fine if all the build-up had drawn me in more, but it just didn’t.
Once the boat gets hit, things suddenly pick up. Admittedly it helps that by this point I was recovered from jetlag and was on a domestic flight with no inflight entertainment or fellow travelers to distract me. But still, catastrophes are, for better or for worse, thoroughly exciting and thrilling, and Larson doesn’t fail in engaging the reader with these emotions. Reading so many first-hand accounts of this madness was terrifying, but rewarding. This is what this story is really about: real people experiencing real trauma. Often tragic history gets lost in the margins of our history books. “Lusitania sinks. America eventually joins European war.” Such descriptions just don’t do justice to the poor people left dead or traumatized. So I give kudos to Larson for taking the time to truly humanize this event.
The section after the sinking is likewise engaging, but, in my mind, just too thin. Whether or not there was anything Larson could go about this, whether the source materials were available, I do not know. But there is a clear accusation (spoiler alert, but again, not really) that the U.K., and beloved world leader Winston Churchill, set up the Lusitania to be attacked on purpose. The implication is that the U.K. wanted America to join the war, and thus purposefully blocked every potential opportunity to prevent this catastrophe (and they had PLENTY of opportunity) so that America would be upset about the loss of their civilian lives, and would thus join the fight against Germany. This accusation, if true, is a big fucking deal. We are talking mass murder here, committed by our friends and allies. But we only get a couple pages on it. Presumably all the potential evidence is very hush hush and hard to come by, which I understand, but after digging so deeply into so many tiny details throughout the entire rest of the book, leaving something this monumental so unexamined feels off.
Anyway, long story short, still glad I read it, I learned a lot, it certainly wasn’t bad. Just didn’t really do too much for me personally.