Recommended Reading: Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

"Enlist" poster by Fred Spear Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

“Enlist” poster by Fred Spear
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

This May will mark 100 years since the Lusitania, a Liverpool-bound British passenger liner, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1200 people on board. While the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram had finally swayed public opinion against neutrality, the 1915 tragedy was still fresh in American minds, and a century later questions still remain about the sinking.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake* is the meticulously researched tale of the Lusitania‘s final voyage, focusing on the ship, its passengers, the U-boat that sank it, Woodrow Wilson, and a top-secret British intelligence unit that could have saved the ship.

It’s also a fascinating portrait of 1915 America—its attitudes, tastes, movements, styles of dress, and even writing peculiarities (I was struck by the description of the Arts and Crafts movement, which sounds very similar to the DIY/maker culture that’s floating about today [for parodies, see Portlandia]).

photo (18)Mr. Larson follows several passengers throughout the voyage, including Charles Lauriat, a famous Boston bookseller who was transporting priceless works by Thackeray and Dickens to England; a pair of brothers who joined the Lusitania’s crew at the last minute; Theodate Pope, spiritualist and architect; and families with young children. The Lusitania sailed with an unusual number of children aboard, which makes the account of the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue effort particularly difficult to read, since so many children were killed (of thirty-one infants aboard, only six survived). Some parents were separated from their children, and entire families fell together to the bottom of the sea.

The direct responsibility for this horrible event rests squarely on the shoulders of the U-20’s commander, Walther Schweiger (who had once fired on a marked hospital ship), but Mr. Larson makes the case for other indirect causes of the disaster. A delayed departure, fog, conflicting messages sent to the Lusitania‘s captain, orders that the ship shouldn’t run at top speed—all of these played some role in setting the ship in Schweiger’s path.

And that path was being tracked by British intelligence, though they did not share information with Cunard that could have prevented the sinking—but why? Mr. Larson’s suggestions are intriguing.

The book only falters, in my opinion, in its over-focus on Woodrow Wilson. While Mr. Larson shows how hard Wilson was working to keep the country out of the war (Wilson’s strongly-worded notes to the Kaiser after the sinking were the target of Onion-like satire, and the political parallels with the present day are hard to miss, especially given Wilson’s fondness for golf), I was often taken out of the story’s grip when the book detoured into Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling; I felt that story belonged in another book. Wilson’s political maneuverings and diplomatic philosophy could have been more strongly juxtaposed against those of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty when Lusitania sank. I would have liked to see more focus on Churchill, as well.

Dead Wake is well-written and suspenseful, even though the outcome of the sailing is a foregone conclusion. I found it hard to put down, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to read one of Mr. Larson’s books.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

14 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

  1. Thank you for pointing out that this May marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. I also just read this book, but for some reason, that didn’t even occur to me. Ha.
    And, I love that Enlist poster you found – very effective.
    I especially loved reading about all the different people on board the ship – especially fascinating knowing that they were real.
    And, I kind of agree about Wilson’s romantic life. I kept thinking there was going to be some reason for it, but there really wasn’t except for human interest (just not this human).

    • I just saw that you reviewed this, Naomi—sorry I’m so behind! I saw that poster when I was a teenager, and I’ve never forgotten it; you’re completely right that it’s effective.

  2. After reading your review, I definitely want to read this book. It has all of the elements that I like and enjoy in a book, historical events with personal, individual perspectives and consequences.

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