In honor of the centenary of the Lusitania’s last transatlantic crossing, we present two reviews: a book and a film.
The Day The World Was Shocked (Protasio).
Subtitled, “The Lusitania Disaster and Its Influence on the Course of World War I,” this otherwise pleasantly presented hardbound book indulges in a whole lot of title to cover a rather lightweight popular-history approach to the atrocity. It begins with a chapter devoted to human-interest vignettes about various passengers, a form of storytelling that it returns to throughout the book. The account of the ship’s history is brief, and the chapters on the naval arms race and the summary of Great War history contain just enough text to avoid being parenthetical.
There’s relatively little information about the U-boat; you can find out more by doing online research. A blow-by-blow description of the sinking is followed by transcripts of inquiries turned into dialogue, and a fairly tedious slog through the political implications of the sinking, culminating in the United States’ entry as a belligerent. An “Afterward” chapter summarizes subsequent attempts to visit the wreck, including a brief account of the Ballard expedition, which is featured in the video that is reviewed below.
A central glossy section features a small selection of nondescript photographs of the vessels and a few of the people involved. Editing and virtual typesetting overlooked the obligatory number of typos, formatting and punctuation problems, including a misspelled name. Chapter end-notes are inconveniently placed before the bibliography at the end of the book. There is no index.
This reader managed to pick out a few keywords to use in later online research, which turned up more helpful information and photos, including digital images of the submarine commander’s logbook.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with this book, but it’s definitely Pop History Lite.
Last Voyage of the Lusitania (National Geographic, film)
This video mainly serves as a vehicle for Robert Ballard to publicize his deep-sea-wreck-diving enterprise. It does honestly report that his findings disproved his initial hypothesis about the second major explosion, which had been informed by some rather dodgy testimony from a SCUBA-diver who had visited the wreck a generation before. However, it clearly substantiates the assessment of the situation that had been made by the U-boat commander, who witnessed the consequences of his attack, and who presumably had enough experience with torpedoing ships to know what he was looking at.
Interviews with aged survivors reveal that at the time of the disaster, most of them were children who were too young to remember much, and what they said about it seemed to be little more than what they might have learned from others. Only one interviewee was a young adult at the time of her ordeal.
The end of the video displays closeup photos of unidentified victims in their coffins, which could be disturbing to some viewers. We are also treated to the display of an item in the archives that the recent publication of the ship’s passenger list now reveals to have been a period hoax: There was no passenger or crew member by the name of “M. McManus” aboard the Lusitania.
The presentation is padded with a very short “making of” feature, and a brief documentary about the Andrea Doria. In all, it’s a well-photographed but only mildly interesting way to pick up a few facts about two maritime disasters. Consulting a good encyclopedia would probably serve most people just as well. Homeschool parental discretion is advised.