The Oregon Trail: A new American Journey by Rinker Buck follows the author and his brother (who is a polar opposite personality) across 6 states and 2000 miles as they retrace the Oregon Trail in their mule-driven covered wagon. Rinker did this in 2011 in very late middle age (as he is my age, I’ll still refer to it as “middle”) after languishing as a journalist at the Hartford Courant and trying to survive a divorce. Most of us wouldn’t attempt a cross-country sojourn with some unknown mules and a covered wagon to fix a middle age crisis but Rinker Buck is no ordinary soul. Along with some pretty adventuresome trips with his family growing up, he and another brother flew themselves across country as teenagers in their father’s Piper.
The story of this trip is a bit long– I easily could have edited out about a fourth of it but I don’t regret reading the expanded saga. In addition to the rather harrowing trip and the many obstacles that the brothers had to overcome, Rinker is an amateur historian and provides a great deal of rich trail history from the recounting of the history of mule-breeding in America to many stories of the original pioneers who made the trek. The book is rich on both counts and Rinker has clearly done his research. He is also a very good writer. Many of the descriptions of the scenery are amazing and you will find yourself with a tear in your eye as he ends the trip and leaves his mules.
If you are a lover of non-fiction, history and/or the Oregon Trail, you’ll have a lot of fun with this book.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is one of the best of the new breed of narrative non-fiction writers and many will remember him for this masterpiece “Devil in the White City”. In his latest book, he tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. He follows three different storylines and interweaves them expertly. The first of course is the sailing of the Lusitania itself, the passengers on board and the captain. The second is the story of U20 – the U-boat that ultimately sinks the ship and the third is the British Naval Admiralty code breakers who are housed in “Room 40” and tasked with following the positions of the German submarine using cryptography. In my opinion, Larson does best in describing the Captain of U20 and life on board the sub and the mechanics of how the German U-boats operated to the point where the reader almost sides with the German captain.
Given that we know the outcome of the story, Larson provides a good deal of suspense as the story progresses. He leaves open the big questions of the tragedy; what did Churchill really know and what role did he play in the sinking; what caused the deadly second explosion causing the ship to completely sink within 18 minutes; why was this passenger ship allowed to move through submarine infested waters with no escort. The author hints at his opinions on these but doesn’t immerse himself in conspiracy and half-baked theories.
Dead Wake is a very good book but not a great one. It will certainly appeal to those who love military history as well as those who love the narrative non-fiction style of writing. Others may find it a big lengthy and dull.