April 23, 2021

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Erik Larson, author of In the Garden of Beasts and Devil In the White City, has done it again. He has taken a slice of history and made it come alive with all of the immediacy of a fiction thriller. This time out, he has scoped into the sinking of one of history’s most storied ships, the Lusitania.

The year is 1915 with the United States under President Wilson remaining neutral while Great Britain and Germany and their respective allies are embroiled in murderous battle on land and sea. Larson illuminates the event from multiple vantage points. Alternating chapters focus on the captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, on a widowed President Wilson finding belated love, on Captain Schwieger of the German U-boat that sank the British passenger ship and on the British Admiralty’s shadowy Room 40 embroiled in spy craft and political machinations.

The most moving thread throughout the book is the fate of the passengers whom we meet before the ship sets sail and follow through their pre-empted arrival in Liverpool, England. We know what happens to the famous ocean liner through our cursory historical knowledge, but the book ratchets up the tension as we wait for the deadly subterranean attack. What exactly happens to the ship? What happens to individuals or to entire families? In short, who survives and who does not? What stance do Great Britain, the United States, Germany and Cunard, the owner of the ship take in the aftermath? Larson touches upon all of these questions.

Paging through the detailed footnotes, the reader sees that Larson has taken voluminous amounts of source material including journals, newspaper articles, book memoirs, intelligence reports and shaped them into a cogent narrative that immerses the reader into the turbulent world of sea travel and global politics one hundred years ago. Larson could probably make anything seem more interesting, but give him fascinating source material like this and the result is a masterpiece.

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