Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania


Let me say right now, that I don’t always choose disaster books. The last book I reviewed was a light hearted memoir about the Appalachian Trail after all! But I get it – I do choose a lot of disaster books. I consider this due to my love for all things historical, and well, disasters do make good history. At any rate…

Erik Larson has made a name for himself with several books on famous American tragedies; this book dives into the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania during World War I by a German U-boat with several hundred Americans on board.

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

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

The Lusitania disaster was a perfect storm of disasters, and Larson expertly details the circumstances leading up to its sinking. He meticulously researched records of the British admiralty, discovering just how much they knew about the movements of U-20 off the coast of Ireland in the days and hours leading up to the disaster.  He tells the stories of the passengers aboard, including tales of the 2nd and 3rd class passengers rather than just the rich and famous. He spins the stories in a way that leaves the reader hanging until the final moments about who lived and who died.

And he tells the story of the U-boat captain, living in the cramped, hot conditions of a submarine, ultimately more concerned about the tonnage that he could sink than the lives of over 1,000 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.

I like Larson’s writing style. He switches back and forth effortlessly among the three perspectives; the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty. He tells the story chronologically, building suspense and a sense of foreboding. You know the ship will go down – that’s in the history books, but who will make it?

And after the sinking, the mistakes don’t end. There are all those hundreds of lives that probably could have been saved, if only other ships had been dispatched right away. If only others hadn’t turned around, thinking it might be a German trap. If only…

It has been over one hundred years since the sinking of the Lusitania. Although the heyday of ocean liner travel is long over, there are still elements of the story that are very relevant. How many times have governments allowed innocent civilians to die because they didn’t want to reveal what they know and how they know it?

Dead Wake was a very worthwhile read – I was hooked the whole way through…

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

  1. Nice review. I read (and enjoyed) Dead Wake, too. Then, we listened to the audio version while heading east last fall. Really enjoyed that as well. The reader for Larsen’s books is great – although it is a bit harder to keep track of the timetable in the audio version. Have yet to find one of Larsen’s books that I don’t enjoy.

    • This one I listened to on audiobooks as well – I found it fairly easily to follow along with the chronology, but not all audiobooks are like that! I would agree – I think this was my third Larson book and I have enjoyed them all.

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