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

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania.

On May 1, 1915, 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 anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds” 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. He knew, moreover, that his ship – the fastest then in service – could outrun any threat. 

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, mystery, and real-life suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to President 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 that helped place America on the road to war.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent account of the Lusitania. I listened to this via audiobook narrated by Scott Brink, who had a soothing, deep voice, also excellent.

The Lusitania, described as a luxurious transatlantic passenger ocean liner with a hull of a battleship, sank on May 7, 1915. It only took 18 minutes to sink. Over 1,000 innocent people drowned. A maritime disaster, changing the course of WWI.

This book described the surrounding events in great detail, from the design of u-boats, the U-20 in particular, from the making and outfitting of the torpedo that hit the ship, characteristics of a zig-zag course in question as the Lusitania made its way through the Celtic Sea. The book also covers events of the time including parties, the oppression of war, German naval policy, President Woodrow Wilson’s decision-making process, and a dynamic love story.

I liked the organization of the book, integrating backstory with current events of the time. I really enjoyed the additional tidbits of sailors’ superstitions such as unlucky days to sail and the thought-provoking presentation to better understanding of English supremacy of the seas.

Cleverly done were the inclusions of multiple inquiries of the time as well as today such as how such a sinking of sorts could have happened to such a large, sturdy ship, with so many lives lost, its course of action, course of sailing, and the major questioning of the additional contents on board: weaponry and its role in the 2nd explosion that happened on board after the torpedo hit. It offered explanations and alternative theories about the curious circumstances.

What I really appreciated about this book were the tributes to individual victims. The book also discussed the emotion felt between loved ones attempting to find closure in the absence of a victim’s body and being caught between hope and grief, as well as the overall aftermath of the disaster and how their lives went on.

I highly recommend this one to anyone, especially those who may be less clear as to how the sinking of this ship played a major part in leading the United States into WWI.

View all my reviews

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