Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

(Crown/Archetype, $28, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Erik Larson, a widely acclaimed master of narrative journalism, has written four previous national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm. His books, which have been published in 17 countries, have sold more than 5 million copies in total. In addition to writing his books, he has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State and Johns Hopkins University.

What is this book about?

It was a century ago that the ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland, on its journey from New York to England. Its sinking took place in the early months of the conflicts that became World War I, and is one of those historic events that people – at least those of a certain age – think they know all about. Erik Larson’s richly detailed account proves that they almost surely do not. The ship was the fastest transatlantic luxury liner then in existence and its captain, William Thomas Turner, believed that Germany would abide by the rules of warfare that had, up till then, kept civilian ships protected from attack. Sadly, he was wrong, and the super-secret British intelligence-gathering team that knew better had its reasons for not alerting the liner to the rapidly approaching sub that carried doom for the nearly 1,200 passengers, who included many babies and children. Add such factors as bad weather, a late departure and unusually slow running speed, and disaster becomes inevitable.

Why you’ll like it:

Larson is both a journalist and a novelist, and he brings his considerable storytelling and research skills to Dead Wake. This is meticulously mined nonfiction, but the story is told with the tension and ironies of a great novel. While explaining the technicalities of ocean voyaging of those times in a way that typical readers can understand, Larson also brings to life many characters – some as famous as President Woodrow Wilson and  others heretofore unknown, in the recounting of this story. A note to Connecticut readers: one of the passengers who survived was Theodate Pope, the woman architect who designed her family’s home in Farmington, now the Hill-Stead Museum.

Here are some remarks by Larson provided by his publisher:   “The Lusitania, like the Titanic, is just such a compelling story, and I felt I could do it in a way that no one else had. I was drawn by the prospect of using the vast fund of archival materials available on the subject to produce a real-life maritime thriller—things like code books, intercepted telegrams, even some extremely passionate love letters between Woodrow Wilson and the woman he fell in love with after his first wife had died. It became for me an exploration of the potential for generating suspense in a work of nonfiction. Plus, I knew the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster—May 7, 2015—was just over the horizon. Further, I’d wager that just about everything that people know or think they know about the Lusitania is just flat-out wrong. Certainly that was the case with me. The sheer wrenching drama of the event pretty much took my breath away.

“The most valuable tools were depositions and other first-person accounts given soon after the sinking. These provided a rich timeline of events: the peace and good cheer aboard ship as the Irish coast appeared in the distance, the moment of impact, and the truly macabre and disconcerting things that followed, as parents made cruel choices and passengers confronted the decision of whether to jump, get in a lifeboat, or stay aboard. These events, juxtaposed against details about the U-boat’s voyage as revealed in the War Log of its captain, Walther Schwieger, and in secretly intercepted telegrams, helped me create a real-time sense of growing dread and danger.”

What others are saying:’s Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015 review says: On May 1st, 1915 the Lusitania set sail on its final voyage. That it was sunk by a German U-boat will be news to few—and Larson’s challenge is to craft a historical narrative leading up to the thrilling, if known, conclusion, building anticipation in his readers along the way. To his credit, he makes the task look easy. Focusing on the politics of WWI, on nautical craftsmanship and strategy, and on key players in the eventual attack and sinking of the “fast, comfortable, and beloved” Lusitania, Larson once again illustrates his gift for seducing us with history and giving it a human face. Dead Wake puts readers right aboard the famous Cunard liner and keeps them turning the pages until the book’s final, breathless encounter.”

“[Larson] has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself…What is most compelling about Dead Wake is that, through astonishing research, Larson gives us a strong sense of the individuals—passengers and crew—aboard the Lusitania, heightening our sense of anxiety as we realize that some of the people we have come to know will go down with the ship. A story full of ironies and ‘what-ifs,’ Dead Wake is a tour de force of narrative history,” says BookPage.

“Larson has a gift for transforming historical re-creations into popular recreations, and Dead Wake is no exception…[He] provides first-rate suspense, a remarkable achievement given that we already know how this is going to turn out…The tension, in the reader’s easy chair, is unbearable…”says The Boston Globe.

The Onion A/V Club says: “The bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck puts his mastery of penning parallel narratives on display as he tells the tale of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, building an ever-growing sense of dread as the two vessels draw closer to their lethal meeting…He goes well beyond what’s taught in history classes to offer insights into British intelligence and the dealings that kept the ship from having the military escort so many passengers expected to protect it…By piecing together how politics, economics, technology, and even the weather combined to produce an event that seemed both unlikely and inevitable, he offers a fresh look at a world-shaking disaster.”

Publishers Weekly says: “With a narrative as smooth as the titular passenger liner, Larson delivers a riveting account of one of the most tragic events of WWI. The fact a German U-boat sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 is undisputed, so Larson crafts the story as historical suspense by weaving information about the war and the development of submarine technology with an interesting cast of characters. He expertly builds tension up to the final encounter. An unanticipated sequence of events put the Lusitania in the path of Capt. Walther Schwieger’s U-20, and he didn’t hesitate to open fire. The Lusitania’s captain, the capable and accomplished William Thomas Turner, did everything in his power to avert the catastrophe, but fate intervened, taking the lives of 1,195 passengers and crew members, including 123 Americans. Despite the stunning loss of life, President Woodrow Wilson held firm to American neutrality in the war, at least in 1915. Larson convincingly constructs his case for what happened and why, and by the end, we care about the individual passengers we’ve come to know—a blunt reminder that war is, at its most basic, a matter of life and death.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “When veteran captain William Thomas Turner accepted the pinnacle position within Cunard Steamship Company, commander of the RMS Lusitania, he never imagined the danger that lay ahead. Bestselling author Larson traces the liner’s final voyage by intertwining narratives of Turner with those of notable passengers such as Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, trailblazing architect Theodate Pope, and suffragette Margaret Mackworth. Hardest to shake are descriptions of impulsive Captain Schwieger and his disheveled German crewmates torpedoing vessels, reveling in the shrill of explosions; and imposing British spymaster Blinker Hall stealthily monitoring Schwieger’s U-20 as it discreetly, or so it thought, hunted targets. Rounding out the primary cast are a trio of political players: an ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm, a disciplined Winston Churchill, and an infatuated (and ergo distracted) Woodrow Wilson. Using archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Larson describes the Lusitania’s ominous delayed departure and its distressing reduced speed. He vividly illustrates how these foreboding factors led to terror, tragedy, and ultimately the Great War. VERDICT Once again, Larson transforms a complex event into a thrilling human interest story. This suspenseful account will entice readers of military and maritime history along with lovers of popular history.

Kirkus’ starred review says:  “Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. . . . A gem of the Cunard fleet, she drew the cream of society, and life aboard was the epitome of Edwardian luxury. The author works with a broad scope, examining the shipping business, wartime policies, the government leaders and even U-boat construction. More fascinating is his explanation of the intricacy of sailing, submerging and maneuvering a U-boat. Gaining position to fire a torpedo that has only a 60 percent chance of exploding belies the number of ships sunk. Throughout the voyage, many omens predicted disaster, especially the publication of a German warning the morning of sailing. . . . Larson explores curiosities and a long list of what ifs: If the Lusitania had not been late in sailing, if the fog had persisted longer, if the captain hadn’t turned to starboard into the sub’s path and if that one torpedo hadn’t hit just in the right spot, the Lusitania might have arrived safely. An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. . . .”

When is it available?

Larson’s latest is awaiting readers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin and Mark Twain branches.

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