Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

15 to Adult
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaOn Friday, May 1, 1915, the luxurious passenger liner Lusitania left Cunard’s New York City pier bound for Liverpool. Late April weather had been stifling in the city but on May Day the skies dawned cool and grey. Few of the passengers who boarded that morning saw the German Embassy’s notice in the newspaper warning that all ships “flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction” in the war-zone waters around the British isles. A few had misgivings but brushed them off, believing the warning was not intended for passenger ships, and besides, as Captain William Thomas Turner assured the few who asked him about the threat of German u-boats, a convoy of warships would protect the liner through the war zone. The Great War was less than a year old, and the United States stayed neutral, along with Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and other smaller countries. Canada, of course, was automatically drawn in as part of the British Empire, and would emerge a full-fledged nation, thanks to our contributions on the battlefield, especially at Vimy Ridge (see Pierre Berton’s excellent Vimy to learn more about this important event in Canada’s political, social, and military history). But in 1915, the Germans were winning the war, largely on the strength of a small but deadly submarine fleet, which numbered just 30 boats when the Lusitania set sail for its final voyage. We learn about the series of events, decisions, and happenstance, both minuscule and momentous, that converge to set up the great tragedy most of us know about as a wartime maritime disaster that brought the U.S. into the war (it didn’t, actually). Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and other critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction, brings his meticulous research and spellbinding storytelling skills together once again to describe events well worth understanding. He begins by setting up the wartime context and interspersing it with the stories of the passengers who chose to book a trans-Atlantic voyage on the fateful ship, in first, second, and third class. We learn about the Cunard line, wartime spying and policies that prohibited rescue efforts that might expose warships to further torpedoes, and an odd storyline about U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, recently bereaved and soon in love again. Most importantly, of course, we learn a great deal about the Lusitania and its captain, and to a lesser extent, the submarine U-20 and its skipper Walther Schwieger. The tension builds slowly but inevitably, in fascinating detail. The narrative section of the book spans 350 pages, and it’s fully a third into the book before the Lusitania sets sail, and another third before Schwieger orders the torpedo fired. It’s no less fascinating even if you know the outcome, thanks to the careful research and detailed recounting of events. There are a lot of passengers to keep track of, and I struggled occasionally without a list to refer to. The research is carefully referenced, with 50 pages of notes citing sources for all quotations, and eight pages for a bibliography. An excellent index completes the package. In addition to a list of passengers who appear in the book, I would have liked at least a few photos. There’s one of the Lusitania at a dock, presumably New York City, and another map of the British Isles showing key cities and landforms, but that’s all. The book has wide appeal, and can be shared with older teens, though be aware there’s a rather gruesome description of an autopsy. Published last year, it won the Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography in 2015, though it didn’t land in my public library’s collection until June this year.
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