Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: 2015
Source: Copy provided by publisher
From the publisher:
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.
I knew I was going to read this one as soon as I heard about it. I really don’t have any good explanation for why it took me so long but I’m glad I finally did.
Both The Hubster and I thoroughly enjoyed Larson’s Devil in White City and I have wanted to read more of his work ever since reading it. One of these day’s I’ll pull In the Garden of Beasts off my shelf and read it too. Larson has a way with narrative non-fiction that makes events you are already familiar with read like a thriller in which you have no idea of the outcome.
In this book he follows both the voyage of the Lusitania and the patrol of the U-boat that eventually sunk her. Alternating between the two keeps the tension high as the inevitable meeting looms. Interspersed are occasional glimpses into events in the British military and Intelligence communities as well as in the US as President Woodrow Wilson strives to keep his country out of the war. I could have done without the extensive look at President Wilson’s romantic pursuit of Edith Galt.
There are many stories of individual passengers, both survivors and victims. The fact that the ship went down in 18 minutes makes it pretty amazing that 767 people survived. As with the Titanic disaster, lifeboats were an issue. Because the ship was hit on the side and tilted as she went down, many of the lifeboats couldn’t be launched.
I did appreciate Larson’s placement of the attack in context of the timing of the US entering the war. While it is often mentioned as a precipitating event it was almost two years after the sinking and many other events and reasons that led to the US declaration of war.
I love nonfiction that sends me off on into a spiral of looking up more information. Fortunately, there is much to be found online including photos and even film of the ship’s departure from New York.