Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Digital Audiobook narrated by Scott Brick
Published by Crown Publishers on March 3, 2015
Genres: History, Non-Fiction, War
Length: 430 pages or 13 hours, 4 minutes
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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.
Erik Larson has a way of writing non-fiction that makes you fall for the players. History should be told in precisely this way, as a story. History can either be presented statistically or artistically. Most audiences will be far more captivated by a narrative than just names and dates. This is why I like authors like Tom Holland and Erik Larson.
Dead Wake tells the story of the RMS Lusitania. In May 1915, the Lusitania was en route from New York to Liverpool when a torpedo was shot at it from a German U-Boat. The Lusitania carried 1900 people on that fateful journey, and the attack resulted in over 1100 innocent casualties. Erik Larson tells the story of the incident from all angles. Neutrality in history is so, so important – in showing the perspectives of Captain Turner, the passengers, and Captain Schwieger of the infamous U-20, he offers a full perspective of the horrifying incident. It is humanizing, mortifying, and a reminder of the cruelty of war. I found the passenger accounts especially interesting, with a particular nod toward the recounting of Theodate Pope Riddle.
Listening to Dead Wake reminds me, a bit, of watching Titanic. Larson introduces readers to the passengers, the captains, and the ship as though he is telling a story. Only, it’s not a story. It’s a very real tragedy that changed the course of WWI. Erik Larson brings it to life. I truly believe there is a certain skill to talking about historical events in this way – to grip your heart as well as academic curiosity. I’ve only read one book by Larson before – Devil in the White City, which is fairly well known and also excellent. After Dead Wake, I’m convinced that I’ll read any historical non-fiction Larson publishes.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction – and, in particular, historical narrative non-fiction – Erik Larson is royalty. I recommend absolutely anything he writes. Dead Wake is an eloquent recounting of the sinking of the Lusitania. The historical references offered at the end of the book are well-rounded and reassuring, and the mixture of personal and professional accounts add depth to the history. Anyone interested in WWI, maritime history, war and world history and the Lusitania herself must pick this one up.