Thursday, January 5, 2017

Disconcerting Facts About the World Wars

I didn't plan to, but it seems I've been reading quite a bit about World Wars I & II lately, and they have me thinking about all the little details that helped or hindered the efforts of those involved in the wars.

Dead Wake by Erik Larsen is a very well-researched, non-fiction account of the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania. The ship was sunk by a German Submarine, U-20, during  World War I. As with all of the Erik Larson books I've read, this story reads like a novel but is based on facts and quotes from numerous sources - archival collections of letters, photos, papers and legal documents, along with journal articles and other books written about the Lusitania.

For those of you, like me, who do not remember this event from those long ago history classes, here's a quick introduction from the book:

On May 1, 1915, the luxury ocean liner Lusitania sailed out of New York carrying a record number of children and infants. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania's captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small - hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more - all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history. 

The chapters in Dead Wake follow a variety of individuals, most notably the captain of the Lusitania, the captain of the German submarine, US President Woodrow Wilson, and passengers Charles Lauriat (who survived & provided lots of information about life on board the ship through a book he wrote as well as from depositions and information in his lawsuit/claim against Germany in 1922) & Theodate Pope (an American female architect who wrote letters to friends while on board - she was badly injured, but survived). Several chapters also follow the goings on in Room 40 - a secret room in London where British intelligence, under the leadership of First Lord Churchill and Admiral Jacky Fisher, intercepted and decoded German messages.

I learned a great deal from this book, much of which was extremely disconcerting:
*The British Admiralty tried to place the blame for the Lusitania's sinking on Captain Turner despite the fact that the Royal Navy did not share vital/secret information about the German submarines movements and did not provide a military escort for this passenger ship!
*President Woodrow Wilson was in the midst of wooing Edith Galt and working to keep America out of the war during this time.
*Most of the passengers had faith in the Royal Navy and the Lusitania, the fastest civilian vessel afloat at that time, and made the trip despite the advertisement that Germany placed in a New York newspaper claiming that ships in the war zone would be sunk.
*Photos were taken of the unidentified passengers and crew who did not survive and 140 were buried in mass graves in the Old Church Cemetery outside Queenstown. Each body had its own coffin, although babies shared with their mother. The photographs provided a way for individuals to be identified later and the mass burial provided a solution for the morgues filled with bodies beginning to decompose.

This was a fascinating book to read and really gave me a better picture of what was happening in the world during the war. It saddened me to know that some things could have been prevented had different decisions been made. It also reminded me how vastly different communication is now with cell phones and 24-hour CNN and the Internet. I wonder if all the digital communications will survive like all those old letters and newspapers and documents and diaries.

Since I recently finished (and reviewed) Volume 2 of L.M. Montgomery' Journals, which covered the years during World War I, I found it interesting to note some similarities. For example, Ouija boards are mentioned in both books as being a new form of entertainment and a way to contact those who had passed away, and newspapers were the prominent source of information. Here's what L.M. Montgomery wrote in her journal about the Lusitania.

The first book I've completed this year is also set during war time; however, it is a fiction story set during World War II and focuses on European refugees trying to get into the United States and the Abstract Expressionist Art emerging at that time.

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro alternates between the story of Alizee Benoit, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York City in 1939-40, and Danielle Abrams, her great-niece, a struggling artist working for Christie's auction house in 2015. This story intertwines these fictional characters with historical figures, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

I enjoyed the story line in this novel as Alizee tried to find a way to obtain visas for her family in France and to raise awareness in the US of the plight of European refugees through her artwork. Years later, Danielle tries to piece together what happened to her great-aunt, who mysteriously disappeared in 1940 and was never found.

I have to admit that it was often hard to shift quickly between the time periods since the two main characters were both young female artists with some similar characteristics. I did, however, enjoy the book and I learned a little about abstract expressionist art along the way.

This book also saddened me as I read about (and then researched further) that Visas were limited for refugees, especially Jews, who were fleeing Europe during the war. In The Muralist, Alizee's cousin and family were aboard The St. Louis, a passenger ship bound for Cuba, but were turned away and not allowed to enter Cuba or the United States. Here's a little information I found about the actual St. Louis:

In May 1939, a passenger ship called the St. Louis left Germany carrying nearly a thousand refugees, most of them Jews. Many of these people had already qualified for, but had not yet received, American visas. They arranged for temporary Cuban tourist visas that would let them wait outside of Germany for U.S. visas. When the St. Louis reached Havana, however, Cuba refused to allow most of the refugees to land. The St. Louis sailed up the Florida coast. The U.S. Coast Guard followed close behind to prevent any passengers from swimming ashore. The State Department refused to allow the refugees to land without special legislation by Congress or an executive order from the president. The desperate passengers aboard the St. Louis sent President Roosevelt a telegram pleading their case. He never replied. Finally, the St. Louis returned to Europe and several nations granted asylum to the refugees. But when Hitler's troops marched through Europe, the Nazis eventually caught most of the St. Louis' ill-fated passengers and sent them to concentration camps.

I highly recommend both of these books, which were published last year, for anyone who enjoys reading novels (Erik Larson's non-fiction read likes a novel) and wants to learn more history about the world wars.

Have you read either of these books? What other novels (or non-fiction books) set during wartime would you recommend?


  1. I've read all of the Erik Larson books. Sometimes he can bog you down with all of the details. On the other hand, I find it so interesting at some of the littlest things he finds out. For example in Dead Wake he talked about the manufacturer of a little girl's shoes. It's amazing that he managed to find that little detail with his research. Love your book reviews!

  2. My favourite wartime story when I was younger was "Carrie's War" by Nina Bawden. I know you enjoy children's fiction as much as I do, so I thought I'd mention it

  3. Both Dead Wake and The Muralist were books read by my book group in the last year or so. I agree, they were fascinating, but also very disturbing!

  4. I've read a lot of war stories - part of my school life and then again when the kids & I were studying world history, which so often seems to be an unending list of wars.

    Some of those children's books that moved me the most:
    When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit
    I David
    The Silver Sword
    The Hiding Place
    The Snow Goose
    Snow Treasure
    The Borrowed House
    Number the Stars
    The Upstairs Room

    I also found the books about the London War Diaries (various titles) & How the Girl Guides Won the War interesting when Ewok was doing WWII and I was reading along for discussion purposes.


Thanks so much for your comment - it's like a ray of sunshine in my day!