Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Like many others, I had always been taught from schooldays that it was the sinking of the Lusitania that propelled America into the First World War. The author, with his rendition of the developments described in “Dead Wake”, seems to contradict that theory.

The first half of the book deals with the events surrounding the voyage just prior to and during the ocean trip. There are descriptions of various passengers and some slightly-technical paragraphs about the Lusitania itself and its’ capabilities and structure, the background of the Captain and some of the crew, and the owners of the ship, the Cunard line. Of course the reader realizes that later chapters will reveal the fate of some of the passengers described and this only adds to the suspense.

“Passengers brought diaries, books, pens, ink, and other devices with which to kill time.  Ian Holbourn, the famed writer and lecturer now returning from a speaking tour of America, brought along the manuscript of a book he had been working on for two decades, about his theory of beauty, whose pages now numbered in the thousands. It was his only copy.”

Interspersed with these chapters are those of the German submarine command and naval personnel, giving a picture (albeit unfavorable) of life aboard a submarine.

I found the chapters about President Woodrow Wilson, some of his personal experiences, and his dilemma in leading American into war to be very interesting. “Far from a clamor for war, there existed a widespread, if naive, belief that war of the kind that had convulsed Europe in past centuries had become obsolete – that the economies of nations were so closely connected with one another that even if a war were to begin, it would end quickly.”

And then there are the chapters dealing with the British Admiralty and naval intelligence.

When it is evident that the Admiralty knew of several vessels torpedoed in the same area, just prior to the sinking of the Lusitania, the author addresses the question of whether they purposely allowed the attack without warning Captain Turner of the imminent danger or providing naval escort. “The neglect to provide naval escort for her in the narrow waters as she approached her destination was all the more remarkable as no less than twenty-three British merchant vessels had been torpedoed and sunk by German U-boars near the coasts of Britain and Ireland in the preceding seven days.”

This question has been examined over and over for years, the surmise being that England wanted America to have sufficient cause to enter the war. However the author makes the point that it was an additional two years before America actually declared war on Germany, and that the success in the sinking of the Lusitania belonged solely with a “chance confluence of forces”.

Although tragedy is never a pleasant subject to read about, especially with the loss of so many lives unnecessarily (had circumstances and decisions been different), the author has written a compelling, highly readable and meticulously researched account of the sinking of the Lusitania.

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The Atomic City Girls

The Atomic City Girls

When I picked up this book at our local library, I wasn’t sure if it would keep my interest. Although I enjoy historical fiction and have a special fondness for World War 2 stories, there has been an upsurge in novels from this period of history and sometimes the sheer scope of them causes me to abandon them halfway through (usually not the author’s fault!) However “The Atomic City Girls” kept my interest all the way to the end.

I had no difficulty keeping this dual story-line straight. There is a huge contrast between characters and each has his own background story and personal outlook as the events unfold.

June, a young inexperienced girl (‘just off the farm’) begins her work at Oak Ridge along with several other characters in this well-plotted book. Besides June there is Sam, a Jewish scientist from Brooklyn, Cici, a poor white sharecroppers daughter, and Joe, the construction worker representing the colored workers.

June was a very likable character and we see her grow in many ways, although her choices in making friends are not always wise. With such tedious work and restrictions (no talking about work, no writing home about what you are doing, ever), there is understandably a lot of pressure that needed an outlet and many friendships are forged under less exacting conditions. This novel illustrates not only the intricacies of the experiments and atomic research but the human condition; the consequences of choice and the disparate nature of humanity.

Joe is separated from his family in Alabama but with the tempting salary and a wife and children to provide for, he has no choice but to accept a job with the construction crew. The living conditions were substandard with just the basics; freezing cold shacks in winter, and stifling hot in summer. The meals were nothing to write home about either, and the colored workers also endured segregation (occasionally kicked off buses), and often persecution.

I appreciated the struggle Sam (the brilliant scientist), has with the morality of what his work entails. Sam’s conscience bothers him to the point of indulging too often in alcohol, a problem that will stay with him throughout the book. The question arises; did others (besides the fictional “Sam”), question the ethics of developing a new type of bomb that ultimately became the most destructive in human history? If so, what about those working in factories making tanks, anti-aircraft guns, machine rifles, etc? The list could go on and on. At some point man must wrestle with the ramifications of choice. When a nation goes to war, in order to win against an evil regime, is it any less moral to work on weapons that will ensure the success of a nation?

This book was eye-opening for me! I never realized the intensity, regulations, and production that went into the top-secret atomic bomb. The author does a good job of creating characters with real-life struggles, motivations, frailties and flaws.  Mixed with the sobering reality of the work involved, this made for a compelling story that kept my interest and provoked intriguing questions; among them the difficulty and the morality of wartime discoveries. There are several photos included in the novel from the Department of Energy, and when we find that the author’s relatives worked in Oak Ridge and Knoxville, we realize that events like these were true to life.

 

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The Empty House

The Empty House

“She was not happy, but, to all intents and purposes, she had everything. A lovely house, a handsome husband, and the children. The children were worth everything…”

Virginia Keile is recuperating from the death of her husband. Left to cope with a young son and daughter, she is given the gift of a vacation away in Cornwall, with her children cared for by their nanny at her in-laws home in Scotland. (What woman would not want a carefree vacation in Cornwall?) But Virginia is unhappily coming to terms with unpleasant memories. Her recent bereavement is especially difficult without her children around her and so she makes the brave decision to strike out and get them back.

In some ways a coming-of-age novel (yes Virginia, you can do this…) with a rekindled romance waiting in the wings, I enjoyed this novel’s slow pace and homecoming feel.

“Now, only one light burned from a downstairs window, but a full moon, white as a plate, sailed high in the sky, filling all the night with silver light. As they came over the wall into the farmyard, a door in the house opened, yellow light spilled out over the cobbles, and a voice called out across the darkness.

“Tom! Alice! Come and have a cup of tea or coffee — something to warm you up before you go home.”

“The Empty House” is pure escapism. A fast, easy read, gentle and soothing (Rosamunde Pilcher’s specialty). With a slate of likable characters, an appealing countryside setting (what is there not to love about Cornwall?), and the predictable outcome that doesn’t disappoint, this short novel hits the spot for those readers seeking the occasional atmospheric, relaxing read.

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The Priory

The Priory

Major Marwood lives on an old estate (Saunby Priory) with his two teen-age daughters and spinster sister Victoria. Like many of England’s estates after the Second World war, his finances simply cannot keep up with modern demands. The rental cottages and farms that he owns and his large majestic home are deteriorating with no means of improvement. However there is one thing that the Major will happily spend money on, and that is hosting huge annual cricket matches. These events require opening his home to numerous guests in the neighborhood and area teams, purchasing vast amounts of food for teas, breakfasts, and lunches, and providing comfortable lodging.

He leans on his hired help, (although the cook is simply awful and the food therefore must be catered), and most of all his ‘man’ Thompson. Thompson is a chauffeur, estimable cricket player, and general dogsbody who is called upon to rescue the Major whenever a new conundrum pops up.

It would be convenient for everyone if the Major’s artistic sister Victoria could lend a hand and take over the housekeeping, but unfortunately her paintings (which no one seems to admire very much) take up all her time (put down that paintbrush and take charge, Victoria!) And so as the house deteriorates more and more and the annual cricket match looms, it is apparent that the best thing for the Major to do is to find himself a new wife.

And so, along comes Anthea. She will fit the bill admirably… at least, the Major hopes so, although his two reclusive daughters, Christine and Penelope, are quite dismayed by their father’s remarriage. Content to remain in the attic nursery they grew up in, Christine and Penelope are dreading the changes a stepmother will bring into the home. However, proving that life is constantly changing, they find ways to cope… and the reader is caught up into the lives of this interesting but often quirky-character novel of country life in England.

“Things were breaking up. Everything was changing. It no longer seemed to matter who one was. Daughters of good families were breaking away in all directions. They went to universities, they went on the films, sometimes they just went. There was hardly anybody left to play cards and tennis in the afternoon…”

We are pleased to see Anthea take her place and become more determined to find her own happiness. The dawning realization of the true state of things and the marriage she has entered into does not compel Anthea to become discouraged. She learns to take charge, rout the lazy, inefficient cook, and find an friend and helpful aide in the nurse she hires (the indomitable Nurse Pye). And as always happens, the girls grow up and Christine finds happiness (for a time) in marriage. Penelope will make a calculated choice to provide herself with security. And always at the back of their minds lies Saunby Priory.

“She stared round in a fierce effort to fix it all indelibly in her mind’s eye and her memory so that it would be there forever.

If only you could hold on to something,’ she thought. ‘Everything fleets past you. No, its you who are fleeting past the rest. Saunby has been here a long time and will be here a long time still. It’s I who pass across it and pass on.’

This thought disturbed her and broke her mood of reflection. She could not hold on to Saunby, she could not hold on to so much as her own moods. Like everyone else’s they were always changing, hurrying her from one aspect of life to another. Now she was suddenly lonely. She wanted to grasp at someone subject to transitoriness like herself. She wanted to make some contact, however trivial, with another human being…’

“The Priory” is a novel of individual choice and motivation, as each character’s story alternates between servants and gentry. The decisions each one makes reflects not only the influences of personal preference and background but the times in which this novel is set, pre-world-war 2 England.

When the radio announces that war is averted everyone rejoices: “Life had been given back to them and they were delirious with the gift. The immense wave of hope and goodwill that was sweeping over the world engulfed Red Lodge too. This was the time when miracles could have been accomplished, when, if they could have come at each other, the peoples of Europe would have fallen on one another’s necks like brothers and wrung one another’s hands with promises of peace.”

There are simply too many threads in this involved, absorbing novel to adequately describe all the sub plots and layers within each character. This was not my favorite (by far) of the Whipple novels I have read to date, however, I did enjoy this and once again had a hard time not reading into the early hours to find a satisfying ending.

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Greenbanks

Greenbanks

When I finished reading Dorothy Whipple’s “Someone at a Distance” I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t wait to start the next from this author. “Greenbanks” had good reviews so I decided to pick up a copy and immediately immersed myself in the lives of the Ashton family.

Louisa Ashton has a large family. Her husband Robert is handsome and unfortunately (in Regency terms), a ‘rake’. However Louisa had long ago reconciled herself to his bouts of perfidy and comforted herself with her children: “What if Robert was too gay for his age – which was fifty-six and also hers? What if her life with him had been nothing like she had hoped? At this moment, it did not matter; she was happy. Her children and grandchildren were gathered round her, enjoying the dinner she had prepared with such care…”

Jim, the eldest son, is still living at home when this novel begins. Not a very likable character (or son), Jim looks out for his own interests. We don’t see or hear much from either Thomas or Rose since they are married with children and their families both live in nearby towns, although they occasionally show up for family holidays. There is the charming favorite (and careless) son, Charles who will go off to Africa and come home with exotic pets, and later is sent off when World War 1 begins. And there is the beautiful but obstinate Laura who marries the wrong man out of pique.

The discontented, unhappy Letty and her family are fortunate enough to live nearby and often appear at Greenbanks. Although Letty’s husband Ambrose is difficult and controlling, her daughter Rachel’s nurturing relationship with her grandmother Louisa becomes the centerpiece in this novel.

When Louisa’s husband Robert is unexpectedly thrown from his carraige, the family must move on without him, but life does not seem to change very much. Ambrose is handed control over the legacy left to the acquiescent Louisa, and indulges in dangerous speculations.

Louisa is content to be a mother and grandmother, and perhaps the core of this novel is the changing roles of women and society that war ushers in so quickly. Letty, caught in a difficult marriage, is hoping for something to change.

“Her mother, although Letty never complained openly, often reminded her in obscure and diffident ways that she had her children; set them before her, as if to point out that here was the be-all and end-all of her existence. But Letty could not feel that…” And so we have two contrasts here; Louisa, Letty’s mother, has grown up in the age of tradition and accepted her role, but Letty wants more. Louisa is content to let life happen as it comes; Laura and Letty, both sisters, decide that the choices they make are not irrevocable.

Louisa was not too wrapped up in her family though to reach out to the lost and forsaken, and if anyone fits that description it is the unfortunate Kate Barlow. Standards today have greatly changed but in this time period bearing a child out of wedlock was a great scandal, one that Kate had never allowed herself to recover from. Louisa, throwing the conventions of the day aside, resists all the advice from her grown children and takes Kate in, hoping their friendship will endure and bring comfort to the lonely young woman. Kate takes solace in her exquisite needlework, eventually making intricate linens for the local church with hopes of gaining the handsome vicar’s admiration.

I have to say that I did not enjoy this novel as much as others from this author. Many of the characters in “Greenbanks” have unhappy lives with unresolved (at least satisfyingly) challenges.   The most realistically drawn character, perhaps because we become familiar with her from childhood and accompany her throughout her growing up years, is the determined, intelligent Rachel. Despite her domineering father, Rachel fights for her education in a day when women are not encouraged to pursue the higher levels of learning.

I found “Greenbanks” to be a fast read and I simply had to find out what would happen in the lives of these characters that I became so immersed in.

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Someone at a Distance

Someone at a Distance

“Old Mrs. North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.”

And so Mrs. North advertises for a live-in companion. Across the Channel, the young, self-centered Louise Lanier is recovering from a broken love affair and looking for a distraction. She finds it in employment with Mrs. North, and thus begins the saga of the breakdown of a marriage.

The author cleverly weaves together the story of a family in France, the Lanier family, and the North family in England, catching the reader up along the way with their triumphs and tragedies. Not just a story about marriage and family, there are lessons to be learned here and the reader is absorbed with vignettes of life in a small English village:

“Mrs. North had a housekeeper, a Miss Daley, who, reinforced by day-women, kept everything in apple-pie order, but who had an unfortunate passion for singing in the chapel choir.”

When I was halfway through this I began to doubt that it would be worth the read. The decline and inevitable breakdown of a happy marriage and family life is not going to be a pleasant ‘comfort read’. Now that I have finished, all I can say is , ‘wow’. This is far from a despairing or depressing read! As each character (so realistically drawn that they seem ‘real’ to the reader!) begins the slow climb out of despair, the author shows that life is never completely hopeless.

“What shall I do?” said Ellen. ‘What shall I do now?’

‘You must go forward,’ said Mrs. Brockington. ‘You must go now with love and courage, Ellen, and trust to God to carry you forward through your life.’

The ending was so unexpected and I was rooting for Ellen (my newest literary heroine!), all the way. Definitely worth reading, I will be hunting down more of Dorothy Whipple.

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The Indigo Girl

The Indigo Girl

I really enjoyed this historical fiction novel set in the mid 1700’s in South Carolina.

When Eliza Lucas is placed in charge of her family’s plantations (three!), at the tender age of sixteen, her father seems to have complete trust and confidence that she is up to the task. With her father away pursuing his political and military interests in Antigua, Eliza is cast upon her own resources and that of a few close friends in making the many financial and production decisions necessary for survival.

“In a few years,” my father went on, “your brother George will be of age and will come across from England to take over my affairs here. In the meantime, Eliza, I’ll need you to act as my surrogate in all matters pertaining to these holdings. You will remain here in South Carolina with your mother and Polly and take charge of my business affairs.”

Eliza, though young, is not afraid to venture into new territory and push the limits of societal expectation. She champions the cause of slaves, teaching them to read despite the legal ramifications of the day.

“…who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave to be taught to write, or shall use to employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every offense forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”

Eliza, realizing that indigo dye is lucrative, attempts to place the family properties on a secure financial footing by delving into the complicated and largely unknown production of indigo. However all is not as it seems and she is thwarted by the plots of those she holds most dear.

Certainly a heroine for her time, Eliza’s contributions to trade and the economy were tremendous. George Washington himself requested to serve as pallbearer at her funeral.

I especially enjoyed reading that most of the characters in this novel truly did exist and their actions were recorded in Eliza’s letters. The author has researched her novel meticulously and combined a love story with intrigue and factual historical experience; a favorite combination for me!

“…the end goal is to secure our family for generations and be of economic service to the Crown. We are building a new world here, Eliza. We have a unique opportunity to be among the first to really accomplish something magnificent.”

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