Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Crown, 2015. Hardcover, 448 pages.
Published just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania disaster, Dead Wake is also Larson’s latest bestseller. Instead of looking solely at the disaster from a military and political angle, Larson provides those and a social angle. In fact, the social angle is predominate-he details multiple passengers over the course of the voyage and provides details about their background.
The book opens in the weeks before the Lusitania‘s last voyage. Readers will see how the passengers prepare for the trip; the crew readies the boat; and the enemy prepares for the cruise in which the two watercraft meet. Also detailed were the reactions to the increasing threat the German U-boats were towards passenger and merchant ships and the reactions of the American, British, and German governments (ironically, on the latter, the Kaiser encouraged these actions. His prime minister tried to stop them). As part of this lead up to the voyage, a bit of the Lusitania‘s history was provided, including the fact it was designed to double as a warship if needed, right down to gun emplacement fittings on the decks.
Once both the Lusitania and U-20, the U-boat destined to sink the passenger liner, are underway the book is ripe with information. Life aboard each vessel is examined-from dining to duties to recreational activities. On the liner, most of the focus is on the first and second class passengers, including the many children on board. Readers will discover that some harbored no worries about the U-boat threat, while others did and proceeded with caution throughout the voyage (one man even bought a fitted life jacket before leaving New York). Also examined are the duties of the crew, both seen and unseen by the passengers. On U-20, readers will learn the intricacies of how a submarine works, the science of diving and surfacing included. Most of the book is dedicated to these actions, complete with stories about the passengers-many in their own words-and excerpts from the U-20‘s captain’s log. Interspersed throughout, readers will see how British Naval Intelligence tracked the U-boats; the growing threat to ships as more and more ships are targeted; and the related political actions.
The actual sinking of the Lusitania occurred in the second to last section of the book. Numerous accounts from survivors are used to recreate the events, including jumping overboard, filling lifeboats, and numerous incidents with lifeboats that caused more harm than good. The biggest threats came from the ship’s list to starboard and rapid sinking-only 18 minutes. These accounts were both horrifying and heart-wrenching; the author succeeded in making the reader feel like they were also present. Also added in this section were the reactions of the Lusitania‘s captain, William Thomas Turner, and U-20‘s captain, Walther Schwieger; the rescue efforts; and the reactions in British Naval Intelligence’s secret Room 40.
The final section concludes the book by addressing the after effects of the Lusitania disaster. Britain attempted to place the blame on Captain Turner despite their mishandling of the events. A quick summary of the America response was also provided as was one for America’s eventual entry into the war. The German response showed how government and military officials differed in options and how U-boat warfare would evolve. Lastly, the post-sinking story of the key survivors profiled in the book were concluded.
In all, the book’s focus on the details on individuals was nice; it added a personal touch. However, there was too much focus on some of the political figure’s lives. Why did we need to know about Woodrow Wilson‘s romance with Edith Bolling Galt? Or Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill‘s trip to Paris and the front? Neither have any bearing on the story. I also highly enjoyed learning about how the submarines work; the science behind them is simple in theory, but very intricate in practice. It was also very interesting to learn about the existence of Room 40 and its role in the war. I do feel that Larson based his outline for this historical work on a novel’s plot line. Why? It not only reads more like fiction, but it also builds up throughout to a climax near the end-the actual sinking occurs with only about 100 pages of the story left. Everything before that is about the people, the fear, and how the watercraft were managed. Afterwards was the climax itself-about 50-60 pages on the sinking, then the aftermath.
What I did not like about this book was the lack of graphics. Other than the map on the end papers depicting the waters where the disaster took place, there was nothing. It would have been nice to include photos of key figures, the watercraft, and further maps. I resorted to Googling images or referring to Diana Preston’s 2002 work Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, another book I’ve been meaning to read.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
Has anyone else read Dead Wake yet? Or another book about the Lusitania? Care to add anything or a comparison? Also, I can’t offer a reward, but can anyone guess what the primary title refers to? It is significant to the story.
6 thoughts on “Review: Dead Wake”
Thank you for the review! I’m looking forward to checking out this book. Erik Larsen is one of my favorite history writers, and his ability to investigate an event through the social angle is what I most appreciate about him. I still think (so far) that Devil in the White City is best.
You’re welcome and thank you for commenting! I hope my readers read your comment and see the additional insight you provided. I haven’t read Devil in the White City yet, mainly because it sounds a bit more scary than what I typically read. What did you think about that aspect?
It’s not scary scary, but it is creepy. However, the serial killer aspect is just a part of the book, not the main focus. I’ve lent it out to several friends and they have all enjoyed it (even the “non- readers” who read it because they saw how much the rest of us liked it). Larsen’s In the Garden of the Beasts seemed much scarier to me because it showed how easily Germany fell under Hitler’s sway. Anyway, I hope you read Devil in the White City; it’s a fascinating book.
Thanks for letting me know! It helps to know that despite the creepiness so many have enjoyed it. I may have to reconsider giving Devil in the White City a try. I have a copy of In the Garden of Beasts I’ve been meaning to read; sadly it was bought during grad school and when I moved last it was packed in a box that hasn’t been unpacked since! I really need to dig that out, especially after reading Dead Wake. Still, it’s always nice to hear what others think.
I’m pretty disappointed that no photographs were included as well, not even well-known images!
Glad I’m not the only one with that complaint! I’ve never read a history book without at least a few images scattered within or an insert, including my upper-level history textbooks!