Dead Wake -- The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, Crown '15, $28, 430 pages, ASIN #0307408868. Index, bibliography, notes, unillustrated except for two maps.
At History Wire, we peruse many hundreds of books a year, both nonfiction and fiction. Frankly, many seem non-remarkable and fade from our memory before the year is out. But a relative few linger on for years because of the compelling subject matter and/or the skill the author uses in its portrayal.
Dead Wake is one of the latter group. I confess I cherry-picked it from the mail and set it aside because the excellence of the author's previous works: Isaac's Storm, Garden of Beasts and, especially, the acclaimed Devil in the White City; suggested I had a treat in store.
And my instinct didn't betray me. Dead Wake should be at the top of your 2015 reading list if it isn't already. Chronicling the crossing of the cruise ship Lusitania from America to Ireland in 1915 mixes the thrill of reading top-drawer non-fiction narrative with the suspense of fiction. Knowing how the story ends might seem to detract from the suspense, but actually it heightens it.
By 1915, the diplomatic and military tension between Germany and America was building to a fever pitch; soon it produced what was naively called The Great War on the assumption no mega-wars would follow. But the scenario between German submarine torpedo warfare and American tourist trade creates an element heretofore absent.
Larson lovers know that this highly-talented author not only has a command of historical reality but describes his characters in a way that makes them seem to jump off the page. From the captains commanding German U-boats and the American Lusitania to the lowliest deck hand, Larson creates a palpable electricity that only heightens once the American vessel is torpedoed.
Even as the ship was taking on unbelievable amounts of sea water, some passengers relaxed in the belief that their huge liner was unsinkable. Gradually, most realized that their doom was at hand, as they clambered aboard lifeboats -- ironically, all happening on the loveliest of spring afternoons, not far from the Irish coastline.
But we don't want to spoil the telling of the saga in masterful Larsonian style. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
Author Erik Larson is author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac's Storm, which collectively have sold more than 5.5 million copies.
The Reagan Era -- A History of the 1980s by Doug Rossinow, Columbia '15, $35, 392 pages, ASIN #0231169884. Index, notes, no bibliography or illustrations.
"In 1984, I turned eighteen and voted for Ronald Reagan," writes historian Doug Rossinow in his new book. "I made the same choice as did about six of every ten American voters aged 18 to 24. Reagan affirmed values that attracted me: unqualified patriotism, national strength, and individual empowerment. I was not very interested in Reagan's specific policy stands.
"I view many things about Reagan and the 1980s differently today. But now, just as I did then, I see the 1980s as an era of crucial choices for Americans -- a time of political transformation and of alterations in social values and ways of life. At the center of these changes -- their symbol, their champion -- stood Ronald Wilson Reagan.
"Reagan is part of a select group of political leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, whose names became watchwords for political creeds and stances toward society, even toward the world. Judging Reaganism is more important than judging Ronald Reagan as an individual, although any sound guide to the 1980s must also show Reagan for who and what he truly was.
"Reaganism was a particular variety of American conservatism, and the 1980s were its heyday. None of Reaganism's basic features was new in 1980, and several of them remained prominent in American conservatism after 1990. But in the decade of the 1980s, these elements came together in a specially cohesive and potent way, in response to the era's political and social circumstances, forming a political identity that was also fueled and shaped by Reagan's success."
Author Doug Rossinow, professor of history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN, is the author of numerous works. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oslo and is past president of the Peace History Society.
The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation by Thomas Fleming, DaCapo '15, $27.99, 424 pages, ASIN #0306821273. Index, notes, grouping of b&w glossy images.
From the dust jacket:
"In the months after her husband's death, Martha Washington told several friends that the two worst days of her life were the day George died -- and the day Thomas Jefferson came to Mount Vernon to offer his condolences.
"What could elicit such a strong reaction from the nation's original first lady? Though history tends to cast the early years of America in a glow of camaraderie, there were, in fact, many conflicts among the Founding Fathers -- none more important than the one between George Washington.
"The chief disagreement between these former friends centered on the highest, most original public office created by the Constitutional Convention -- the presidency. They also argued violently about the nation's foreign policy, the role of merchants and farmers in a republic, and the durability of the union itself. At the root of all these disagreements were two sharply different visions for the nation's future."
Author Thomas Fleming is a distinguished historian and author, amazingly, of more than 50 books. He has contributed articles to numerous leading magazines and journals. He lives in New York City.