Tuesday, March 3, 2015

SOS! Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: March 10, 2015
Source: ARC borrowed from Jen at The Relentless Reader

Summary from Goodreads

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.

My Review:

I have a serious question, readers.

Why did I know everything about the sinking of the Titanic (at least, everything as dictated by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), but nearly nothing about the Lusitania until I read this GEM of a book?  Because I'm always first to admit that my knowledge of history is lacking, but really.  Hollywood has focused on the wrong subject here.

I have been striking it RICH with nonfiction lately, people!  And this might be the best one of late.  A few years ago, I read Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, and was impressed with his style of narrative nonfiction.  What that literary jargon means is that his nonfiction books read with the suspense and vivacity of a fiction novel.  All of his works are historically accurate (painstakingly so), but he formats them in a way that makes you feel like you're right in the moment with these historical figures, part of their conversations and triumphs and tragedies.

That absolutely holds true for Dead Wake as well.  I was on the edge of my seat while reading this book.  Larson outlines the entire week leading up to the Lusitania's sinking (oh yeah, spoiler alert: it gets sunk. By a German submarine), and even though you totally know what's coming, you'll find yourself praying that the darn thing stays afloat.  Because you KNOW these passengers.  Larson brings you up close and personal with the captain, the crew, the men, women, and (way too many) children on board, even the stowaways.  Plus, you get perspectives from the US (as President Wilson deals with some personal romantic issues while all this drama unfolds), the UK (as the British had far  more foreknowledge of this attack than you may think), and the German U-boat that actually perpetrated said sinking.  This gives you a clear illustration of the complex political forces at work during the attack as well.

In the end, you're left with a detailed, absorbing, and highly emotional account of one of the most devastating and politically-charged passenger boat disasters in history.

I can't say enough good things here.  Five stars all the way on this one.  Whether you're previously familiar with the Lusitania disaster or not, this is a nonfiction release that is not to be missed.

Ever been on a cruise, reader friends?  Did you pay attention during the lifeboat drills?  I bet you will after reading this.  Also: swimming lessons.


  1. I'm excited for this one. As you say, why all the attention for the Titanic? I can't wait to learn more about the history and political background of this story. As for going on a cruise, I might stay on land from now on.

    1. Haha, yes, this is not the book that I would recommend for people traveling by sea anytime soon. :)

  2. I totally need to pick up my copy! I'm a huge Larson fan and history geek, so I know it has my name all over it. My husband gobbled it up when I brought the ARC home, too!

    1. Um, yes. You of all people definitely need to read this soon!!

  3. I'm posting my review of this one tomorrow. Unfortunately, I didn't feel the same way about it as you did :( I thought his famous narrative nonfiction was really missing from the first half.

    1. Ah, to each their own! I will check out your review this week. I always like to see a differing opinion!

  4. I read this, too.

    I think readers should be reminded to read all of this and not skip any of it. I was tempted to skip some paragraphs that seemed overly descriptive but, luckily, just in case, didn't.

    I was ashamed to say but no longer am because Larson, himself, admits the same: I always thought that the U.S. entered World War I immediately after the Germans torpedoed and sank the "Lusitania." Larson lays out the truth, beginning with background. That can form the basis for educated guesses about what happened later and why.

    For me, the biggest mysteries of this story are what the English knew ahead of time, why they didn't notify the captain of the "Lusitania" when they knew it, and why they continued to lie about it. Was this an effort to involve the U.S. in this war in Europe? Or were the English trying to mislead the Germans?

    I came to a conclusion. But that's because I read it all.

    1. Yes, all of the information about the secret information-gathering done by the British was interesting indeed. That added a whole new element to this piece of history...I think people who are more aware of the events surrounding the Lusitania sinking may not know about that, and it certainly changes your interpretation of things.

  5. I am so glad that you loved this book. I was crazy about it, as you know! If you haven't read his backlist you really ought to :D

    1. Thank you for sharing!! :) I did read In The Garden of Beasts, but I need to get to Devil in the White City.

  6. This sounds wonderfully like In the Kingdom of Ice by Kingdom Sides, which I loved for the way it read like a novel. I must track down a copy of this one!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I am keeping note of any nonfiction books that are written in a similar style.

  7. I haven't read anything by Larson yet, but I really want to! This sounds fantastic. I'd second Leah's recommendation of In the Kingdom of Ice :)

    1. I hope you get a chance to soon, I think you would love it! And thanks for the recommendation :)

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