A new book by Erik Larson will be release in March of 2015. If his previous books are an indication, Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania will be very good – both engaging and informative. And, like his first best seller Isaac’s Storm, its release is timely. Erik Larson is a popular author of what is called narrative, or literary, non-fiction. Those of you who have read any of his books are familiar with the meaning of this term. It is non-fiction written in the style of a novel, with character and scene development that adds a sense of realism and immediacy and draws the reader into the story, rather than leaving the reader as an outside observer of the reported facts (as with newspapers and textbooks.) And there is suspense. You might know what will happen in the big picture (as with Isaac’s Storm-about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, or In the Garden of Beasts-which takes place in 1933/34 Germany) but you continue reading to find out what will happen with the characters. These books are as informative as textbooks (sometimes more so) but they are exciting to read.
I am looking forward to reading Dead Wake. I’ve read several of his other books and found them very engaging. I also have learned, or learned more detail about, historical events, which I really enjoy. These include famous crimes that are little-know today, but at the time were big news.
His characters are so well developed that I sometimes thought “how does he know this?” There are details in Larson’s narratives that you think he must have fabricated, but the extensive notes show that he has done his research. As he states in his introductions, everything in the books is documented. And the detail brings the characters and story to life. You care about the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and admire and dislike them for these traits.
Larson’s first best-seller is Isaac’s Storm (2000), about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Of his books I’ve read, I like this the best. The book is also about Isaac Cline, the man who headed the Galveston Weather Bureau station at the time. Isaac was an accomplished man, a pillar of the community, and a representative of a proud and conservative institution. A third story is that of this institution. The Weather Bureau was intent on shaking off its reputation for scandal and incompetence by jealously guarding its position to the point of rejecting outside ideas. Larson makes us feel disdain for this pig-headedness and disbelief at the tragic consequences (some would say he is unjust in his portrayal.) A review of Dead Wake mentions hubris; there is plenty of hubris displayed in Isaac’s Storm. We learn about the science and history behind hurricanes and about the lessons that should have been learned but weren’t, or were learned but forgotten. And we are at the edge of our seats reading about the hurricane and the characters as they endure the storm.
Two of his other best-sellers tell parallel, related stories in alternating chapters. Devil in the White City is the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the story of a killer who ingeniously used this attraction to pursue victims. Can Chicago transform itself into a world-class center of culture and outdo the Paris Exposition of 1888 and the Eiffel Tower? Can the men responsible for creating the Fair pull it off in the face of natural and human obstacles? And the story of the killer seems right out of fiction. Another book, Thunderstruck, is the story of Guglielmo Marconi and wireless. It is also the story of a seemingly mild-mannered man who feels driven to commit a grisly murder. The connection between the parallel narratives is itself an exciting story, among the most suspenseful I’ve found in Larson’s books. Despite this, I thought it was contrived.
His most recent book, In the Garden of Beasts, revolves around a man few of us know about. The more fascinating story, though, is the one of his daughter and her involvement both with members of the Nazi regime and a bitter enemy of the Nazis. Larson’s writing about everyday incidents during these first years of Hitler’s rule is vivid. Beatings are common. People fear being denounced by spiteful neighbors. Ordinary Germans put off surgery, fearful of the tongue-loosening effects of anesthesia. This book is full of the type of detail that makes Larson’s books a pleasure to read.
I have shown in previous posts that I am a fan of historical writing. There are many authors who are very good at telling this type of story. I find Erik Larson to be among the best. Whether you’re a fan of fiction or non-fiction, come by the library and check some of these out. You’ll be glad you did.