Review of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
While everyone knows the story of the Titanic, few people know much more about the Lusitania other than it sunk. That’s about to change as the 100-year anniversary of its sinking approaches this May, and because of a great book by Erik Larson that was just released.
Larson is the master of narrative nonfiction (history written in the style of a novel) who wrote The Devil in the White City, a riveting account of a serial killer in Chicago wrapped around the 1893 World’s Fair. His latest effort is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Larson’s story begins shortly before May 1, 1915 when the British luxury ocean liner, the Lusitania, sets sail from New York to Liverpool. After six days at sea, a torpedo from a German U-boat sinks it on May 7th off the southern coast of Ireland causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. It was the event that turned Americans against Germany, and two years later the U.S. entered WWI.
Larson alternates chapters between the thoughts and movements of the German military, and the events unfolding aboard the Lusitania, in Britain, and the U.S. This technique builds the tension into a page-turning race to get to the end. Not a small feat considering we know how it ends.
As usual, Larson has done meticulous research. He dug deep into archives of telegrams, survivor depositions, secret intelligence ledgers, love letters, films, photos, and more to bring this story to life. Tracking down long buried anecdotes led him to London, Cambridge, Denmark, Virginia, Stanford University, Library of Congress, the National Archives, and other places. He ferreted out details such as what the passengers wore, who they loved, where they worked, and why they were on the ship, as well as the steamy chronicle of President Wilson’s love life. At one point, Larson even boarded Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 for a winter crossing of the Atlantic.
History, and especially WWI, buffs will appreciate Larson’s accounts of the intrigue leading up to the U.S. involvement in the war, including the machinations of the top-secret British war office known as Room 40. Fans of maritime minutiae will be fascinated by the stories of German U-boat strategies, and the accounts of daily life aboard what was once the largest passenger ship in the world.
Larson touches on the many theories and questions regarding why it was unescorted by the military through dangerous waters, why the rescue mission was bungled, and why there were so many coverups by officials including Winston Churchill. Did he perhaps want to provoke the U.S. into entering the war? And how did a single torpedo take down this immense ship? Were there munitions aboard?
I like my history with dashes of intrigue and suspense, and Larson delivers both in Dead Wake. He’s taken a dark moment from our collective past, and brilliantly illuminated it for all to enjoy and learn from.
My only complaint: I would have loved pictures.
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.