Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2015




Crown Publishers (2015), Edition: 1st, 430 pages


The #1 New York Times best-selling author of In the Garden of Beasts presents a 100th-anniversary chronicle of the sinking of the Lusitania that discusses the factors that led to the tragedy and the contributions of such figures as President Wilson, bookseller Charles Lauriat and architect Theodate Pope Riddle.

Media reviews

If creating “an experience” is Larson’s primary goal, then “Dead Wake” largely succeeds. There are brisk cameos by Churchill and Woodrow Wilson, desperate flurries of wireless messages and telegrams, quick flashes to London and Berlin. These passages have a crackling, propulsive energy that most other books about the Lusitania — often written for disaster buffs or steampunk aficionados — sorely lack.

User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
Erik Larson is credited with writing histories “…that read like a novel”, meaning, I suppose, that they hold reader interest on every page by gripping language. This is true; Dead Wake manages to be a “page-turner” without sacrificing scholarly rigor. It’s interesting to compare Dead Wake with the previously reviewed The Lusitania. The Lusitania author Colin Simpson was cherry-picking data to back up his particular conspiracy theory (which is never clearly stated, but the implication is that the Lusitania was carrying munitions that were illegal on a passenger vessel under US law). Dead Wake doesn’t go that far – Simpson’s book isn’t mentioned in the bibliography – but does make the argument that the British Admiralty was negligent in failing to provide escorts in waters where a U-boat was known to be operating, and then attempted a “cover-up” by blaming Lusitania captain William Turner for the disaster.

Larson tells the story by repeatedly shifting focus – from passengers and crew on board the Lusitania; to politicians in Washington, London, and Berlin; to the crew of the U-20. The Lusitania passengers are the most poignant, as the reader is left guessing until the last minute who will survive and who will drown. As in many disaster books, Larson stresses the series of coincidences that brought Lusitania and U-20 together: The Lusitania suffered a couple of minor delays leaving the dock in New York; had she been even a few minutes earlier U-20 wouldn’t have been in position to attack her. Lusitania had lost track of her exact position while traveling through fog patches; she did some turns to allow her navigators to take multiple bearings on a prominent coastal landmark, and one of these turned brought her in perfect position for U-20. German torpedoes at the time were notoriously unreliable, but the single one fired at Lusitania worked just fine.

Larson clears up some of the questions raised by Simpson – or at least provides plausible answers to them. There was a mysterious “second explosion” on Lusitania after the torpedo hit, remarked on both by surviving passengers and the crew of the U-20; Simpson implies this was an illegal cargo of high explosives shipped in disguise. Larson speculates it was a steam explosion caused cold seawater encountering superheated steam pipes- and notes that’s what Captain Turner thought it was too. Larson also explains why Lusitania sank so quickly; she had longitudinal coal bunkers that ran along her sides for her entire length. This has been insisted on by the Admiralty when they partially funded her construction; they provided additional protection against shellfire and the Admiralty planned to use Lusitania as a merchant cruiser or troop transport in event of war (her sister Mauretania was used as a troopship but Lusitania was deemed unsuitable because she burned too much coal). While the coal bunkers doubtless would have provided some protection against shellfire they were worse than useless against a torpedo, allowing flooding all along the ship’s length once breached. Larson doesn’t resolve the question of the three German stowaways, though; three men, speaking only German and carrying cameras were found onboard the Lusitania after she sailed. Simpson implies the men were trying to photograph evidence that Lusitania was armed; Larson just notes they were captured and locked in Lusitania’s brig (where they presumably still are, as no one let them out before she sank).

Larson has a salient advantage that Simpson didn’t; at the time Simpson was writing (1974) the activities of the WWI Admiralty codebreakers (“Room 40”) hadn’t been declassified yet. Larson is therefore able to document what the Royal Navy knew about U-20 on the basis of radio decrypts. Ironically that wasn’t as much as might be expected; WWI radios were relatively short range and although the U-20 was tracked as she left base, she stopped transmitting once she got about 100 miles away since she was out of radio range. The Admiralty did know that a submarine was operating along the expected route of the Lusitania, since U-20 had sunk a small sailing vessel after allowing the crew to board lifeboats, and they reported once reaching shore. Larson contrasts the Admiralty’s attitude toward Lusitania with their attitude toward the dreadnaught Orion; after Orion finished repairs at Devonport, she was sent north to join the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow – heavily escorted and warned against U-boats – while the Lusitania, transiting roughly the same area, was left on her own. (Larson notes that many of the passengers fully expected they would receive a Royal Navy escort).

I’m not really satisfied with either book. Simpson’s is obsolete, given the absence of “Room 40” information, and is too dedicated to proving his theory. Larson is more readable but I’d like less focus on people and more on things – more details on how Lusitania was built and operated. I suppose I’ll have to track down yet another book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The extent of my knowledge of the sinking of theLusitania was that it was a ship that sunk, sometime soon before or after the Titanic, that a lot of people died and that it had something to do with WWI. Which is, admittedly, very little. So when Erik Larson wrote a book about it, I was happy to pick up a copy and start reading. Larson writes accessible and interesting books of social history, and I'd read and enjoyed a few of his previous titles.

During WWI, the German navy was far smaller than the famous British equivalent, except that they had invested in U-Boats that could travel undetected and sink ships without being discovered. These early submarines were not the safest of environments, and their weapons were not entirely reliable. Still, they had a huge impact on naval warfare, leading to the end of large battles involving many ships. Instead, submarines patrolled the waters around harbors and shipping lanes, sinking merchant vessels carrying armaments and supplies. The problem came when British ships began flying the flags of neutral countries when moving through high-risk areas, and American ships began carrying armaments and other supplies.

The British were desperate for the US to join the war. Americans were just as determined to avoid Old World conflicts. Germany was angry about their ships being held in American ports. The Lusitania's planned voyage from New York to Liverpool in May, 1915 was a risky one, given that the Germans had posted warnings in the New York papers that directly mentioned her. But the travelers on board, as well as the crew, were confident that the ship's speed (much faster than that of any submarine) as well as the expectation of an escort of British destroyers as soon as the ship reached British waters, protected the ship from any potential harm.

The actual sinking of the Lusitania occurred only because of an unlikely conflux of events, not the least of which were confusing information sent to the ship, the British government's need for American involvement in the war, the weather, and the randomness of timing. Still, it was a disaster, with nearly 1,200 people dead as a result. The book's most interesting chapters naturally surrounded the events during and immediately after the ship was hit by a German torpedo. Despite the high number of dead, including many Americans, it would be another two years before the US entered WWI, but the sinking of the Lusitania did have a great affect on changing American attitudes towards that war.

Larson writes ably, and certainly researched the subject in an exhaustive manner. This sometimes resulted in a book that tried to pack too much in, with superfluous information about random passengers bogging down the narrative rather than enhancing the story. Still, this is a very readable and accessible book about an important event that is not well remembered. It was certainly worth the time it took to read and I enjoyed it.
… (more)
LibraryThing member niquetteb
This is an excellent in-depth non-fiction work about the sinking of the Lusitania, which I knew nothing about prior to reading. While slow in parts, the author succeeds in bringing so many parts surrounding and leading up to the ship's sinking that engage the reader.
LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
Another excellent history from Larson. My favorite thing about his books is the way he describes all the various pieces surrounding the central issue, both large and small; it's like watching a historian do their work, and it gives so much context. I love history that explains context. I knew a little bit about the Lusitania before I read this (acquired during the course of my teenage Titanic obsession; they tend to be talked about in the same breath) but I certainly didn't know that there's a very good chance that Winston Churchill let it happen, or that it took two years for Wilson to give his famous speech about making the world safe for democracy, or just how very close it came to not happening at all.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
On July 7, 2002, I read Diana Preston's book on the sinking of the Lusitania and felt it was probably the definitive book on that event, so i did not intend to read this book, especially since I felt Larson's Isaac's Storm (read 9 Dec 1998) and his book The Devil in the White City (read 2 Aug 2004) constructed inferiorly, with much extraneous matter having little to do with the subject. But when a book club I attend picked it I had to read it. I found it really does insert much material only tangentily related to the subject or mere trivia, but the chapters on the actual sinking I found were riveting and emotion-packed. So the book was better than I expected, . But don't expect much insight in regard to the political or diplomatic significance of the event.… (more)
LibraryThing member ElizaJane
A very readable narrative on the sinking of the Lusitania but more importantly on the days leading up to it and how the US became involved in WWI. I knew nothing about this topic more than the basic knowledge any average reader would have and found it an entirely intriguing history and study of the cold-blooded callousness that exists during war. However, it certainly wasn't a page turner. My interest in history has always been at a social level and this book is more about an event, politics and the military than people so while I didn't find it hard to read, I also didn't find it hard to put down either. Once the book got to talking about the passengers my interest was more keen and I certainly read the second half of the book faster than the first. I'm glad to have read it, but not a page-turner for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I found this non-fiction account of the sinking of the Lusitania vastly instructive, not least because Erik Larson helps to dispel popular rumours about the ship and its fate. Before I started reading, I was under the impression that the Lusitania was an American passenger ship, carrying mostly American passengers, whose sinking by torpedo in 1915 brought the States into World War One. Wrong, wrong and wrong. She was a British ship, carrying most British passengers (only 189 of 1,959 were American), and Woodrow Wilson took another two years to declare the USA at war.

Larson does much more than set facts straight, however, he tells the story - of the passengers, the crew of the Lusitania (including poor maligned Captain Turner) and the U-boat which sank her, and the powers behind the disaster, including naval intelligence and President Wilson. Sharing the tragedy, if not the fame, of the Titanic three years earlier, over a thousand men, women and children lost their lives when the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915, and all because the Admiralty would not risk drawing attention to 'Room 40', the secret code-breaking team who knew ahead of the attack that Captain Schweiger and his U20 were lying in wait, but refused to send warning or assistance.

A dramatic, personal and educational account, well worth reading.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Romonko
I was given an early review copy of this wonderful book as part of the "Read it Forward" program. The book will be coming out in May of this year to mark the 100 anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Lusitania, which occurred at 2:30 P.M. on May 7, 1915. This iconic passenger ship was sunk by a German U-boat just off the Irish coastline. It was a tragedy of tremendous proportion, as 1,198 souls were lost on that day. Only 761 people survived the disaster. The question has always been - how could one U-boat firing one torpedo bring down the mighty Lusitania in 18 minutes? Mr. Larson does a marvelous job of telling this very sad story, and it is told from two viewpoints - that of the hunter and the hunted. The people that were involved in this story are brought to life on the pages of this book. Unfortunately, the Cunard Shipping Lines and the British Admiralty do not fare so well in the telling of this tale. There were a lot of mistakes and missteps made by both august bodies that resulted in the tragic loss of so many lives. Mr. Larson has researched his topic thoroughly, and has presented as full a story behind this tragedy as any that I've read. It is a thrilling book to read - exciting and terrible, and one that I will never forget. I intend to read more of Mr. Larson's narrative non-fiction books after reading this one. It reminded me of why I love the genre and made me regret that I've let the reading of non-fiction slip from my repertoire. This is a book that I will be happy to move onto new readers, thus fulfilling the "Read it Forward" mandate.… (more)
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
I wasn't taken with the audiobook version of "Dead Wake" by Erik Larson. Some authors of history aimed at a general audience (McCullough, Winchester, Bryson, and Tuchman come to mind) have a way of intriguing you with their diversions and side trips. Larson demonstrates the depth of his research, but didn't engage me in the same way. While the monotone narration doesn't help, some of this was a slog into minutia that really didn't have any relevance to the narrative.… (more)
LibraryThing member Unkletom
Once in a while I hear from readers who claim they do not like to read nonfiction. Often they claim that it is boring to read a story when you already know what will happen. Where is the suspense?

With his latest work, ‘Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania’, Erik Larson has proven that he is one of those few talented authors who can tell such a story, a story of tragedy and loss, and do it in such a way that for a few seconds the reader almost believes that it might end differently. His narrative skill is such that the reader finds himself watching the magnificent liner approach through a periscope knowing that it must change direction and sail away at the last instant. Then we are up on the boat deck of the Lusitania, enjoying the warm blue sky and watching the coast of Ireland slide by in the distance. We stand with the passengers and watch a torpedo as it streaks through the crystal waters and disappears below the edge of the deck thinking, like the passengers, for a brief second that nothing bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. Then the second passes and reader and passenger are wrenched from that scene of pastoral beauty into a Boschian chaos of twisted metal and broken bodies.

It is this great storyteller’s ability to take dry words from telegrams, court depositions and government reports and turn them into lenses that we can use to see, and even relive, the past that makes Larson one of the very few authors whose books I would preorder sight unseen. One scene towards the end was described in such poignant detail that it engaged all of my senses.

As President Woodrow Wilson drove to the Capitol to ask Congress for a declaration or war, “a spring rain fell, soft and fragrant; the streets gleamed from the ornate lamps along Pennsylvania Avenue. The dome of the Capitol was lit for the first time in the building’s history [and] stood in solemn splendor against the dark wet sky. Despite the rain, hundreds of men and women lines the avenue. They removed their hats and watched with somber expressions as the president passed slowly in his car, surrounded by soldiers on horseback, as clear a sign as any of what was to come.”

Larson’s other books, ‘The Devil in the White City’ and ‘Isaac’s Storm’; reside in a place of honor on my bookshelf. Now they will be joined by With ‘Dead Wake’. Now all that remains is to wonder what historic gem will spark his curiosity next.

*Quotations are cited from an advanced reading copy and may not be the same as appears in the final published edition. The review book was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.
… (more)
LibraryThing member vpfluke
A quick note that the author ties in the story of Woodrow Wilson, his second wife, and his reluctance to get into World War I rather well. Also, the super secrecy of the British government which worked against warning or help being rendered to the Lusitania. Lauriat of Boston bookstore distinction is mentioned, who survived the sinking. Good footnotes, bibliography and index.… (more)
LibraryThing member countrylife
[Dead Wake] is the story of the sinking of the Lusitania.

”The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, this trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.” . . . The smoothness of the sea presented some passenger with a view of the torpedo that was startling in its clarity.”

The Lusitania’s passenger list is not just dry facts; Larson fleshes out many of the passengers from the memories of survivors and from their own journals. He brings a bit of the story of President Wilson – his wife’s death, his subsequent courting of another, and his new marriage – into the history of WWI, and without saying so explicitly, how his personal life interfered with the country’s needs.

A crucial part of the story of the catastrophe was the work of Room 40 in England, a secret corner of British Naval Intelligence, where they would receive 20,000 intercepted U-boat messages during the war. They knew their paths, their quadrants, their codes, each commander, and his kills. They knew U-20 was directly in the path of the Lusitania, that it had already sunk 3 other ships that day, and that 23 other merchant vessels had been torpedoed and sunk by U-boats in the previous 7 days along that portion of the coast.

“… the question remains, why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?”

A fascinating story of that piece of history, engagingly told.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Meredy
Six-word review: Maritime calamity that shouldn't have happened.

Extended review:

Without realizing it at the time, I took this book out of the library on the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania. Reading of the events leading up to, during, and following this major marine catastrophe as they unfolded in the hours and days surrounding her torpedoing on May 7th of 1915 added an unexpected measure of drama to the experience.

Larson's book bears comparison to Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, a narrative account of the loss of the Titanic just three years earlier. Both present a description of the ship, a sketch of key personnel and a selection of passengers, and a minute-by-minute account of the climactic events as they happened. Both bring an up-close-and-personal perspective to our comprehension of a tragedy that is very difficult to encompass on the large scale.

And, significantly, both of them catalogue a staggering list of if-only's, all the factors that had to happen just so in order for the disaster to occur, a minor variation in which--even by a matter of only a few seconds--might have averted the fatal outcome.

The crucial difference, of course, is that whereas the Titanic disaster came about as the result of a collision with an iceberg, with an ample helping of human error and hubris in the mix, the Lusitania was deliberately sunk by a German U-boat committing an act of war. And, as the text makes very clear, that act could have been prevented if a number of people possessed of critical information had taken the necessary steps. Accident, error, delay, miscalculation, design flaws, inattention, stupidity, coincidence, and many other everyday mishaps had their part to play; but worst of all was the conscious choice on the part of certain officials to leave the vessel unescorted and issue a vague, ambiguous warning about the presence of danger. Whatever rationale guided that course of action, nearly 1200 passengers and crew on a commercial ocean liner paid the price, along with their families, friends, and fellow countrymen.

Larson's telling sets a solid framework on both sides of the Atlantic, from an emotionally preoccupied American president to the high-stakes military operations of Britain and Germany. Personal effects and diaries of victims along with records of survivors and eyewitnesses bring the story home. A hundred years is not such a long time; it's much too soon to forget.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
The spoilers below really are spoilers, so don’t read them if you haven’t read the book but think that you might someday read it and you dislike spoilers.

I was interested in the topic (for decades I’ve been interested in the Titanic) and knew I’d previously enjoyed books by this author so I was excited to read the book as an informal buddy read in my favorite Goodreads group. I wasn’t disappointed. I could have assigned this book 5 stars, or maybe even 3, so I went with 4 stars.

I love this author’s writing style; his nonfiction books are great for readers who think they don’t enjoy nonfiction. I also appreciate how his nonfiction is 100% factual. For instance, what is in quotes was really said or written, and he does extensive research.

I recommend if reading this book going in as ignorant as possible and resisting urges to do research until after finishing the book – even looking up maps, deck plans, and definitely people provided spoilers I’d rather have done without. I still really enjoyed the book. Re the non-fiction, I’d read a lot outside that book that didn’t make it into the book. I suspect that information didn’t pass muster with the author. He writes at the end how there is a lot of misinformation out there about the Lusitania. But the map provided is not at all sufficient. I would have appreciated more maps and images, including photographs. I got those in the other two books I’ve read so far by this author. If all this had been included I wouldn't have felt such a strong urge to do further research outside the book and wouldn’t have found out more than I wanted to know. At 39% through the book I stopped looking up information and just read the rest of the book.

The book read quickly and easily and completely held my interest.

I appreciated that so much general history of the era was covered. I got a much better sense of historical figures as people (President Wilson, Winston Churchill, etc.) and enjoyed the cameos (Hitler and Captain Von Trapp, etc.); it did give me insight into the time and the Lusitania’s place within that time and place(s). However, by the end of the book I wasn’t completely satisfied by how it all worked. For some people/events it felt as though there was not enough and for others too much.

I did care a great deal about most of the people the reader gets to know. There was great suspense. I felt as though I got a good feel for how it must have felt to be involved. I liked all the details; it helped me understand everyone and everything. I was surprised at how calm people seemed, how accepting, and also surprised that for several people this sinking was not their first shipwreck. I can’t imagine getting back on a ship if I’d gone through the trauma of surviving something like this, though some did even after this sinking. I knew that when the Titanic sunk there were new rules put in place about having enough lifeboats and life vests for all people on board. Well that sure didn’t work well. I’m assuming they learned even more from the Lusitania and future sinkings too.

I felt infuriated by this event, as there were so many ways it could have been prevented, and I think that there was plenty of blame to go around. Obviously, this particular U20 submarine commander and the German’s enthusiasm/willingness to kill women and children take the most blame. Churchill and English didn’t come across so well either, to me. The communication mishaps from Room 40 were also inexplicable to me. I don’t blame Captain Turner. It’s a miracle he survived given that he did stay with his ship.

It’s a very sad story, but there is humor, and I didn’t find most of it depressing. One person who was depressed anyway, in a way I found those parts harder to read than reading about the actual tragedy. The kids were hard to read about, and because I got invested in the characters early on, I correctly guessed that it would be difficult to read about what happened after the ship was attacked.

The book proper goes through only page 359. That’s all I’ve read so far and all I’d planned to read, until darn it re the author, the last line of page 359 has me about to read the notes, or at least skim and read them. They go from pages 361-410. (Pages 411-418 is the index.)

For any reader interested in the Lusitania, this is the book I’d recommend, at least as the first book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Book on CD narrated by Scott Brick.

The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

As he did in Isaac’s Storm, Larson uses tidbits found in research materials from a variety of sources to flesh out a narrative tale of a great disaster. This time, the disaster is man-made, however.

Larson shifts perspective from the Lusitania, her passengers and crew, to U-20 (the German submarine that would successfully sink her), to Room 40 (the British intelligence office that had information that might have avoided the disaster if it had been properly shared. In this way the reader gets a much more complete picture of what was happening – and why – than the poor souls who lived (or died) through this tragedy. It’s a compelling story, which completely captured my interest despite my knowing how it would turn out.

Scott Brick does a good job reading the audiobook. His delivery is rather dry, but this is fine for a work of nonfiction. He was still able to lend a sense of the panic and distress of the passengers, Captain and crew of the Lusitania, though this is probably more attributable to Larson’s writing than to Brick’s performance.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Bandersen
Eric Larson is the master of narrative non-fiction. What a researcher! I learned so much about submarines and living conditions in the early 1900s ( and I didn't even know I wanted to learn about it). Although, this wasn't as gripping as some of his earlier books, I was still invested emotionally in the characters and events. This would be a great read for high school students-great connections to science and technology. If schools could move away from textbooks and use primary source material and this kind of non-fiction. No one would think history class is boring!… (more)
LibraryThing member karenweyant
I am a big fan of Erik Larson's work, and I finished Dead Wake in record time. Larson's latest collection thoughtfully investigates the last trip of the Lusitania before it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Featuring an interesting cast of characters, Dead Wake is a must read for history buffs everywhere!
LibraryThing member hollysing
Erik Larson is a master of narrative historical nonfiction. His new release, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is slated to release March 2015 coinciding with the anniversary of the tragic sinking of the ship. The book examines the curious circumstances surrounding the luxury ocean liner’s fate.

In the middle of World War I, the Lusitania, a British luxury ocean liner made its ill-fated voyage from New York City to waters near Ireland in 1915 despite warnings about German interference. On board were American, Irish and British citizens, including many children. It’s captain, Thomas Turner, confident in the ship’s speed and “gentlemanly strictures of warfare”, sailed on. A German U-boat silently tracked the ship. The rest is history.

Most of us think we know this story. After you read Dead Wake, you will learn secrets never before revealed. Larson’s book is a high-intensity page-turner, written not just as history, but also as mystery and several human-interest stories.

How did US President Woodrow Wilson’s personal life affect his reaction to the tragedy?

Was a conspiracy involved between Britain and Germany?

How long did it take for the United States to decide that the deaths of Americans on-board called for US involvement in the war?

Dead Wake is an important read, not just because of its content. Larson’s sensitive treatment of persons involved draws the reader into the emotion before and after the incident. The pace of the story is thrilling. Copious notes and references document the amount of research used for this book. Don’t miss this propulsive and compulsive contribution to World War I history. It comes highly recommended for all history and maritime lovers.

LibraryThing supplied the advance reader’s copy for my unbiased review.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
… (more)
LibraryThing member IsolaBlue
Erik Larson is not capable of writing anything less than a gripping account of history. All of his previous books have been spellbinding accounts of storms, cities, crimes, inventions, ships and/or war. In DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Larson returns to the subjects of war and ships and stirs in a potent mixture of international politics as well as a little romance to once again seduce his readers with a contemporary view of an historical situation.

Written to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, a Cunard passenger liner sunk by a German U-Boat, Larson's account differs in several ways from other well-known books produced on the subject. Diana Preston's LUSITANIA: An Epic Tragedy, published in 2002, is one of the best-written accounts of the disaster. The difference between Preston's work and Larson's might be found in the subtitle of the Larson book which emphasizes the crossing while Preston's book is most memorable for its account of the sinking and its aftermath, particularly accounts of survival. No one can read Preston's book without feeling as if he/she is clinging to a piece of wreckage in a cold, spring sea awaiting rescue. No one can read Larson's book and not feel like the proverbial fly on the wall in the infamous Room 40 of the British Admiralty. While Preston addressed Room 40, in Larson's writing, the room takes on a role and becomes a character (albeit not a very appealing one) in its own right.

Larson skillfully gets into the mindset of Winston Churchill and how determined he was to see America enter the war. In the States, Larson goes back in time and brings President Woodrow Wilson to life through a love affair that seemed to take up more of his time than thinking about the suitability of America's neutrality. Yet Larson allows readers to see Wilson in a most human light; perhaps the love affair gave him the strength for the decisions he had to make later. While the reader feels a connection with Wilson and also with the much-maligned but ultimately blameless Captain of the Lusitania, Captain Turner, utter horror and strong dislike is brought out when we read about Captain Schwieger of U-Boat 20 and, in a strange way, perhaps even more when we examine the real-life characters and goings-on within the Admiralty's Room 40. Germany and Britain both emerge as more than a bit despicable.

The pluses of Larson's latest work are his acute examination of Room 40, his up-close look at Woodrow Wilson, and his ability to swing between the behind-the-scenes action and balance his discoveries with a conventional but absorbing look at some of the passengers on board the Lusitania all while building a true and terrifying suspense in the narrative. His profile of Charles Lauriat, Boston bookseller and collector of rare documents and drawings, is excellent. One senses that Larson was truly interested in Lauriat and might, having not been faced with producing a book to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania's sinking, have chosen Lauriat as a sole subject for a book or article.

Erik Larson can never disappoint. Whether one reads a great deal about WWI history, maritime disasters, or early 1900s international politics, there is something new to be learned in DEAD WAKE. For those who have read very little about the Lusitania, this book is an excellent starting point. As mentioned before, Diana Preston's LUSITANIA: An Epic Tragedy tells a similar story but with a slightly different approach. Both books have something to offer, but Larson's, being newer, may include some fresh revelations about the history we thought we knew.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Dead Wake uses the tried and true braided narrative technique with a large cast of characters set during a disaster. And therein is the problem, there are so many people it was a chore to keep track and not particularly rewarding. It jumps from one story to the next so often it looses narrative power. I kept thinking this is trivia. Nevertheless in the postscript Larson says there are "amateur historians" obsessed with the "Lucy" (Lucyites?) similar to Titanic fans who know ever last details of every passenger and crew. So I guess there is an audience for this sort of thing and it puts a human face on the tragedy. And I suppose that due to Larson's writing ability it's a painless way to learn about this significant event of WWI, the cinematic description of the sinking is the highlight of the book, but I wished there was less filler in the first half and more emphasis on UBoats in WWI, the English attempts to bring the US into the war, the German raiders and other things that are central to why Lusitania is historically important. For example Larson devotes time to the failure of the lifeboats and lifejackets but doesn't follow up if anyone noticed in the inquiry. Larson does cover some historical aspects but 80% of the book is fragmented personal stories, most of which are really not that interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member tangledthread
Erik Larson is a master of the Narrative History genre and he demonstrates this again in Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

The author combines human interest stories of major historical figures and the lesser known, but no less important, people in the story. It this author's appreciation of the minor characters' stories that keeps the reader's interest in the story. We not only read about the emotional turmoil in Woodrow Wilson's life but also the seven year old boy with measles who was a passenger on the ship.

The book points out the conundrum on the use and usefulness of covert intelligence, when the intelligence officers refuse to use the information gained to prevent disasters because it would risk exposure of the intelligence service. It does not answer the question of whether there was indeed deliberate inaction on the part of Great Britain in order to draw the U.S. into the war. But Winston Churchill does not come out of this story smelling like a rose.

Before reading this book, I was aware of the horrible acts of war in the trenches during WWI, but I was not aware of the ruthlessness of German submarine warfare with even the crudest submarine equipment.

The release of this book is timely since we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Lusitania and it helps the reader put this event into perspective with regard to WWI.

I am reviewing the Advance Readers Edition, which does not include maps or photographs. I will look at the book once it's released in the book stores, because I would have appreciated maps....instead I kept my tablet device at my side with maps available while reading.
… (more)
LibraryThing member techeditor
Read all of this. Don't skip, even if you suspect that 1) some paragraphs exist simply because Larson didn't want to waste a single bit of the research he did for DEAD WAKE and 2) those paragraphs won't contribute to your overall understanding of the book. Your suspicions would be wrong. I had those suspicions but, luckily, just in case, didn't skip.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
On May 7th, 1915 at 2:10 pm GMT, a single torpedo fired from a German U-boat slammed into the passenger liner RMS Lusitania; by 2:28, the ship was completely gone. Okay, so that's old news -- everyone who's ever taken US history in school has at least been introduced to this information, normally related as one of the events leading up to neutral America's entry into World War I. [That's not quite the case, as it turns out -- America wouldn't start sending ships and troops over to Britain until two years later.] So if this is a story that's already been told, why read about it again? The answer is simple: it's written by Erik Larson, and it is a darn-near perfect book.

Mr. Larson sets up his account on a day-to-day basis, covering not only what's happening on board the ship during its voyage from New York to Liverpool, but he covers what's going on in London, Washington DC, and occasionally Berlin. He also presents the unique perspective of the commander of the U-20, who ultimately gave the order to launch the torpedo that sunk the Lusitania. He brings together and explains a "chance confluence of forces" that led to the sinking, beginning in New York the day of the Lusitania's departure. He also reveals the story of the very hush-hush "Room 40," and how this secret "holy of holies" run by Winston Churchill had information regarding U-20 that somehow failed to be provided to the Lusitania's captain, which in hindsight would have saved hundreds of lives. All of this is related in an account that grabs the reader's attention from the very beginning, then in Larson's very capable hands, builds little by little, gaining in suspense and tension all the way through to the end. I mean, come on ... we know the ship sinks ... it's the getting there and the unfolding of all of the "confluence of forces" that kept me hanging onto each word.

The reader does not need to have any sort of background in history nor does he or she need to know anything at all about the Lusitania to enjoy this book -- everything is so well explained here that you could absolutely hate history before going into Dead Wake, and come out a huge fan of this little slice of it. My biggest issue with this book is that I don't understand why he felt the need to include Woodrow Wilson's ongoing courtship of second wife Edith, a topic that took up way too much space and almost made Wilson's role as president superfluous until the events of 1917 that ended American neutrality.

I am so happy to have read this book -- and it certainly was an eye-opener for me. There is so much going on here, but as always, Larson keeps tight control over the material, making it flow like a novel. I am also happy to recommend it to anyone who is a regular Larson reader or anyone even remotely interested in the topic. To use an old cliché, I could not put this book down -- it's that good.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ozzer
The tragic sinking of the superliner, Lusitania, by a German U-boat is well-trodden ground with a few unsolved mysteries. Eric Larson tackles the story with his personal approach to writing about history but does little to clear up the mysteries. Why was there no naval escort when the ship entered the war zone? Even the U-20 commander, Schwieger, was surprised by this fact. Larson suggests that escorting a British battleship took precedence. This seems strange when one considers all that was at stake on the Lusitania. What caused the second explosion after the torpedo strike? Once again Larson pays scant attention to the alternative explanations. Certainly this played an important role in the rapid sinking of the liner. Schwieger also was surprised that a ship of that size could be so easily sunk with one torpedo. Larson makes a clear case that the submarine and torpedo technology of the time was rudimentary and often ships needed to be given a final coup de grace with the deck gun. The reason given for why the British cruiser in nearby Ireland was recalled after it set out to rescue passengers was to prevent previous scenarios where rescue ships were themselves torpedoed seems reasonable, but this also seems inconsistent with the numerous civilian craft entering the killing zone without incident. Did Churchill have access to insider information about the danger? It is clear that British spies were tracking U-20 and were aware of the danger it posed. Were the British allowing this tragedy to happen in order to coax isolationist America into the war?

It is not easy to be critical of Larson’s approach because it is possible that new information on those questions just does not exist. In fairness, he does raise all of these issues but spends much more of his narrative on the personal stories that swirled around the sinking and, once again, demonstrates his masterful ability to place the reader at the heart of historical events and to make us care about the people involved. We were in U-20 with Schwieger and his crew experienced the extremely harsh conditions that existed at that time for submariners. We met the Lusitania’s passengers in all classes and had opportunities to learn their personal stories and ultimate fates. We had the opportunity to see President Wilson’s muddled mindset at the time. Likewise, we were given a close-up of Thomas Turner, the Captain of the liner. Larson paints a tragic picture of the 18 minutes it took for the Lusitania to go down and the its almost unforgivable lack of preparation, despite prior knowledge obtained from the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier and the fact that Cunard knew in advance of the danger. They seemed to be betting that the Germans would never be so bold as to sink a super-liner, with many civilian passengers aboard, including Americans. Clearly, they lost that bet, but the end result was indeed a win for Britain and her allies because of America’s entry into the war.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ethel55
This was a compelling read, one that took a bit to get into, but once I got into the rhythm Larson laid out, it was hard to put down. Larson deftly weaves the stories of the Luisitania, the U-boat that sunk her and various British and US government pieces to meet up together in that moment on May 7, 1915, when she is torpedoed. I was fascinated by his use of Schwieger's own war journal from the U-boat, we were really able to see how the Germans were moving so far North in the water, often undetected. I was also interested to learn that even after this Cunard liner was attacked, it still took two years of European warfare before the US entered WWI. I think it my hazy knowledge of history, this event had more to do with that. His bits about the war raging in trenches on the Continent made me wish I could still talk to our Great Uncle Clarence. He was a doughboy during WWI, just a kid from the Iron Range of Minnesota.… (more)


Original language



Page: 0.35 seconds