Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead wake
Dead wake

"Man plans, God laughs."Erik Larson

If you love reading non-fiction and drift toward historical topics, you should put the latest Erik Larson book on your list.  Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is a worthy installment to Mr. Larson's writing collection.

The Lusitania is the passenger ship which was (Spoiler Alert) sunk by a German U boat during World War I. The attack was part of the reason the US eventually entered the war, but even when you KNOW how the story will end, this book is a page-turner.

Erik Larson is a seriously talented writer.

As with his previous books (I read and enjoyed both The Devil & The White City and In The Garden of Beasts), Larson has a gift of weaving together facts to make a narrative which is suspenseful and gripping. He takes great care in bringing to life passengers and making them human.

“Mrs. Arthur Luck of Worcester, Massachusetts, traveling with her two sons, Kenneth Luck and Elbridge Luck, ages eight and nine, to rejoin her husband, a mining engineer who awaited them in England. Why in the midst of great events there always seems to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history.”

In fact, by the time you get to the moment of the boat sinking, you're familiar with the characters and the texture of the humanity on-board the boat.

Then you read this paragraph about the final moments and it takes your breath away:

"'An all-swallowing wave, not unlike a surf comber on a beach, was rushing up the boat deck, enveloping passengers, boats, and everything that lay in its path,' he wrote. A mass wail rose from those it engulfed. 'All the despair, terror and anguish of hundreds of souls passing into eternity composed that awful cry.'"

At this point I should probably offer a few disclaimers. #1 - If you really, really love to cruise, I'm not sure you will entirely enjoy the book because of sinking descriptions like the one above or this:

“Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy.”

Yikes.  And those are some of the less-harrowing paragraphs.

#2 - If you are prone to claustrophobia, the descriptions of the history of submarines will also give you pause. One sentence in particular will haunt me, and I will definitely NOT quote it!  But if you can get through the gruesome parts, many of the facts are fascinating.

# 3 - If you love Woodrow Wilson and/or Winston Churchill, this book also takes a little luster off of their reputations, so there's that to consider as well.  To wit:

“The absence of any protective measures may simply have been the result of a lapse of attention, with Churchill off in France and Fisher consumed by other matters and seemingly drifting toward madness. It would take on a more sinister cast, however, in light of a letter that Churchill had sent earlier in the year to the head of England’s Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, in which Churchill wrote that it was 'most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.' Though no one said it explicitly, Britain hoped the United States would at some point feel moved to join the Allies, and in so doing tip the balance irrevocably in their favor. After noting that Germany’s submarine campaign had sharply reduced traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman: 'For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.'"

This book deserves all of the buzz it's receiving even while the subject matter is notably sad and more than slightly disturbing. I, for one, appreciate Mr. Larson using his prodigious talent to share this story.