Saturday, March 27, 2010

David Laskin's "The Long Way Home"

David Laskin has written books and articles on a wide range of subjects, including history, weather, travel, gardens, and the natural world. His The Children’s Blizzard won the Washington State Book Award and the Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award for Nonfiction. His other titles include Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals; A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence; and Artists in their Gardens (coauthored with Valerie Easton).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, and reported the following:
I love the idea of the Page 99 Test and it just happens that my new book The Long Way Home passes with flying, or at least vivid, colors. The book unfolds the immigrant experience in the First World War by following 12 men born in Europe who emigrated to America and returned across the Atlantic in uniform to fight with U.S. armed forces – and page 99 just happens to zero in on two of the guys at the moment their lives intersected with the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.

In one of those narrative coincidences that make authors’ eyes twinkle, one of my guys, a Russian-Jewish plumber by the name of Meyer Epstein, actually emigrated on the Lusitania (in steerage) in 1913. How amazing that two years later the torpedoing of the fabled steamer by a German U-boat should bring Meyer’s adopted country to the brink of war.

Page break. I pick up with Andrew Christofferson, my one Norwegian immigrant, a slim, good-natured young fisherman who emigrated in 1911 in the hopes of homesteading in Nebraska. After an ecstatic Christian conversion at a Midwestern camp meeting, Andrew eventually found free land to homestead in the harsh short-grass prairie of eastern Montana – and that’s where he was when the Cunard liner flagship went down. Andrew’s daughter told me her father got all his news, a few days late, from a Norwegian-language paper called the Decorah-Posten. So I dug up the relevant issue and found someone to translate the account that Andrew read on May 11, 1915: “When the ship had vanished, the sea was filled with hundreds of persons struggling to stay afloat, and the air was filled with their cries for help and their calls to loved ones, bidding them farewell.”

Page 99 ends with a nod at how the German-American press covered the sinking: they blamed the tragedy on England and its American sympathizers, the idea being that if you were stupid enough to cross the Atlantic on an English steamer when the ocean was seething with German U-boats, well, you pretty much had it coming.

All in all, a pretty good snap shot of my book – and of the high-tension atmosphere that gripped the nation when the world’s fastest ocean-liner was torn asunder by a torpedo on a spring afternoon in 1915.
Read an excerpt from The Long Way Home, and learn more about the book and author at the official The Long Way Home website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue