Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Author: Erik Larson

Genre: Non-Fiction, History, War

Publisher: Crown

Published: March 10, 2015

Page Amount: 430 pages

Blurb From GoodreadsOn 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.

Why Read: I’ll admit that this book has been in my wheelhouse for a quite a long time (if you count since March as being a long time). I’m a self-admitted Erik Larson fangirl. Ever since being forced to read Devil in the White City in highschool, I’ve been hooked. There was no difference in this particular instance. I knew I wanted to read this book the second it was released… it only took a few months.

Review: One of Larson’s particular strengths that appears in every book he writes is the unique ability to cross over two stories that seem to have no connection, and lead the reader to their inevitable intersection. He didn’t need to do that in Dead Wake. The stories of the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner and Unterseeboot-20’s captain, Walther Schwieger are immediately connected by their foregone conclusion. However, what was surprising and welcome was Larson’s inclusion of Woodrow Wilson and a variety of passengers that boarded the Lusitania.

It is difficult to describe the sadness a reader can feel upon reading the memories and diary entries of passengers, knowing that if not dead by old age, they are almost certainly victims of an attack that happened barely over a century ago. Following the paths of individuals that boarded the Lusitania, whether they be 1st class or steerage, was heartbreaking. I particularly admired the juxtaposition between the heart-racing byplay of the U-Boat and the daily lives of passengers simply traveling to Britain, for one reason or another. As a reader, I couldn’t help but be torn as each section developed into another, knowing that ultimately the Lusitania had to sink – and there was nothing that would change that

The development of characters in Larson’s books is also surprisingly vivid, despite it being based off of non-fiction accounts. It is certainly one thing to create a fictional character and describe them piece by piece, but it altogether another to build a real person’s past based on scarce notes and reports from a time long past. Larson creates this world of 1915 with such reality that it can sometimes be difficult to believe it’s real.

As I’ve said, the pace of the story was twisted from the lazy days aboard the Lusitania to the nail-biting moments of the U-Boat and it’s pathway that would steadily lead it towards the freighter. It’s part of the books charm, that it’s able to so deftly navigate between the two moods as though they are simply two sides of the same coin. While they are in fact all critical parts to the story, each section is so captivating in it’s own way that at times, I would forget about the U-Boat and simply grieve with Woodrow Wilson for his wife and for the troubled days that lie ahead.

This book is absolutely something that everyone should read. Not only is it incredibly well written and touching, but it also explains a part of world history that is brushed over so quickly in history courses. Everyone learns about the Lusitania as it relates to America entering the war. Not everyone appreciates the subtle maneuvering of each side that brought it to the bottom of the oceans floor, and truly, everyone should.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

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