Telling old stories in new ways
2023-06-06

I spent the afternoon walking around the Hoover Institute at Stanford University today. My mission was to find and a piece of a lifeboat from the RMS Lusitania. While reading *Dead Wake* by Erik Larson, I learned it was there.

I was disappointed, though, because I had to come back with an appointment. Just to make sure I was in the right spot, I DMed Larson on Twitter. He confirmed that I was but yes, I did in fact need an appointment.

The first book of Larson’s I read was *The Devil in the White City*, an extravagant tale of murder, mystery, and mayhem at the Chicago World’s Fair. I followed that up with *The Splendid and the Vile*, which easily became one of the best books I’ve ever read. Next came Dead Wake.

Larson writes a particular style of books called narrative non-fiction. Everything in the book is true, but it reads like a novel. His books opened my eyes to a new style of reading and writing, and are the reason I want to write narrative non-fiction myself. In fact, I’m currently pursuing a Masters degree in English and Creative Writing with a non-fiction emphasis, much to the prompting of his books.

Larson believes there’s always a new way to tell an old story. At breakfast with the director of the International Churchill Society, Larson explains he was dubiously questioned about his motivations for adding yet another Churchill biography. “Well, look,” he said, “It’s all in the telling.

I wanted to write about how the Churchill family and their close advisers—who were like family—how they actually got through the Blitz, day to day, in that first year of his prime ministry, which happened to coincide with the first year of, and most important year of, the German air campaign. I wanted to know how these guys did it on a day-to-day basis, and their families—what they had for dinner and all that.

The narrative began to take shape when Larson received access to Churchill’s daughter’s diary. Mary, who was 17-years-old at the time, Larson explained, “[L]iked to have fun. You know, she liked to go to dances with the RAF guys; a couple of times she mentions snogging in the hay loft. That was exactly what I was trying to get at, was, how did people actually do it, how did they cope?”

That was one thing I was most delighted to read in *The Splendid and the Vile*. The diary entires addressed the same timeless ideas of love and hate, things we all still journal about today.

Mary, who in the midst of the Blitz was being courted by a young soldier, opened her heart to her journal. After meeting him, she wrote, “Now–Mary–take a hold on yourself–my little plum.”

After getting a letter from him asking her out to dinner, she simply wrote: “Oh heaven.”

The following Sunday, he called her. They spoke for twenty minutes. “He is v. charming I think & has a very beautiful voice,” she wrote. “Oh dear–have I fallen, or have I?”

Through his writing, Larson helps the reader realize how normal and simple people acted, even in the midst of utter chaos. “I think one thing that guides me is that I often look for things that tie us, in the present, to people in the past,” he said. “Things that make us realize that, you know, we aren’t so different now in how we feel about things, and what we do, and the things that move us. Anything that ties us to the past, I think, is a good thing.”

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