Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

If anyone has the mistaken idea that history is boring, they need to read this book. Under the careful work of Larson, his investigation into the era, the people, the voyage, the sinking, and the life thereafter reads like a compelling novel.

Larson has taken the approach of alternating the story between the Lusitania and the German submarine, U-20. The way he develops the story builds up the suspense, even though we know what is going to happen. He adds a personal element to the story by reporting on the lives of some of the passengers, who they were, why they were on the boat and what they were taking along. He even includes some of the interactions various passengers had before, during, and after the sinking. The detail is intriguing, like the few people who were sucked into the stacks as the ship went down and then were shot out again, covered in soot.

A few aspects of the story really surprised me. I did not know of the love President Wilson had for Edith Galt and how distracting that was during this era. While they later married, his love for her certainly distracted him at a time when historic decisions needed to be well thought through. Churchill was in France so was not in physical charge of the Admiralty at that time. There was no navy escort for the passenger ship even though suitable navy ships were sitting in ports nearby. There was speculation the British deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be unescorted to draw the U.S. into the war. The Admiralty tried to put all the blame on Captain Turner but official reviews found him not at fault.

I, like Larson, thought from my childhood history classes that the sinking of the Lusitania resulted in the U.S. soon going to war with Germany. I was surprised to find that the Americans did not declare war for some two years. That was many sunken ships and lost Americans later.

This book is the way history should always be told. I highly recommend it. It is a fascinating story and a well crafted account of it.

Erik Larson is the bestselling author of several works of nonfiction. He was a former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and Time. He and his wife live in Seattle. You can find out more about him and his books at

Crown, 448 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

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