Much like the 100th anniversary of the Titanic in 2012 inundated us with retrospectives and movie rereleases, expect a flood of books on the Lusitania for its centenary coming up in May. You may remember the Lusitania from the footnotes of your high school textbook: a British passenger ship that was torpedoed in the early years of World War I, resulting in the death of about 100 Americans. From the day it sank, the Lusitania’s value as a propaganda instrument has overshadowed the drama of the actual event. King and Wilson correct this imbalance by adding a human element back into the story.
Both authors have written about social history and European nobility, and their focus lies on the personalities of the wealthier passengers. They do explain apologetically that those in positions of power and wealth were simply better-documented, which is easy to believe given how little we know of the contemporary Titanic’s third class passengers. And they made a conscious choice to illuminate people with the strongest connection and appeal to the 21st century reader, such as a female architect seeking recognition in a man’s field, two closeted gentlemen avoiding the eyes of the other passengers, and a larger than life theater impresario.
The only characterization I found lacking was the Lusitania itself. King and Wilson describe the ship’s opulent interiors, but the illustrations are almost exclusively portraits of the passengers with some exterior photographs. One nightmarish episode involved passengers trapped in the ship’s elevator after the power failed, but the actual scene is hard to visualize without a picture of the cage-like elevator car. And without any deck plan, it’s hard to place where the victims were in the ship’s final moments.
Read this book if social history and the personalities of people in a disaster appeal to you. But if you seek a more technical description of the Lusitania and its fate, wait for another Lusitania book undoubtedly on the way this year.