Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson tells the story of the famed Lusitania, the passenger vessel sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. Aside from the tragedy and horror of the event, the ship’s demise became solidified in history because it became one of the turning points in America’s involvement in World War I. Larson, best-selling author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, is known for his unique ability to retell historical events with a literary quality paralleled only by novels of fiction.
Reading Dead Wake feels like reading a history textbook that’s far more interesting and accessible than your average 600+ page academic compilation of events. A large part of this intrigue is owed to Larson’s profile of individuals whose lives were bound up in the Lusitania’s last voyage. Larson zeros in on the Lusitania’s captain William Thomas Turner, the U-20 submarine’s captain who sunk the Lusitania Walther Schwieger, as well as a number of passengers aboard the vessel. While some of the information provided can falter to the side of dry or disinteresting, for the most part Larson provides a strong platform for the reader to build empathy and connection with the “characters.”
We meet Charles Lauriat, a bookseller and collector who was travelling across the Atlantic with a rare copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Other notable figures included Theodate Pope, “the first female architect licensed in Connecticut,” through who Larson shows the gross injustices done to women in the early 1900’s. Perhaps the most memorable and intimate though is the portrait Larson paints of the then United States President Woodrow Wilson. Larson not only shows the figure known to the public, but delves into the intimate life of Wilson’s pining love for Edith Galt.
Larson’s sources ranged from letters to diaries to news reports and beyond, and by far the most engaging aspect of the novel is the number of quotes that he includes. Not only are these snippets of discourse and dialogue fascinating in and of themselves, but they are also a window into the hearts and nature of their speakers. Admiral Scheer of the German fleet was quoted as saying:
“Does it really make any difference, purely from the human point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?”
Juxtaposed by this statement is that of Austrian U-boat commander Georg von Trapp who said “we [U-boat soldiers] are like highway men, sneaking up on an unsuspecting ship in such a cowardly fashion.” von Trapp envied those in the trenches and aboard ships for their closeness and intimacy with war that he felt gave them the moral advantage of actin on rage, fear and out of self-defense.
This and other statements by German, British, American and other country’s prominent naval and political figures provide insight into the general attitude of each country’s militaristic force. These quotes and notes though are not meant to act as general blanket statements for whole nations. Larson points out “that while on distant patrol the [U-boat] captain received no orders from superiors” and was thereby empowered to sink any vessel he saw fit. Because of this, Larson points out that not all U-boats and not all captains were the same: “there were cruel boats and chivalrous boats, lazy boats and energetic boats.”
Schwieger’s boat was a notably cruel boat, though as Larson points out Schwieger claimed he did not know before launching his torpedo at the Lusitania which vessel he was attacking. Larson also notes that this claim was highly unlikely. However, true to his objective telling of historical facts, Larson makes no accusations or assumptions; rather he presents the facts for the reader to decide how to interpret them. That’s not to say that Larson’s tone doesn’t sometimes betray his own feelings toward a person, nation, etc. but it does reflect the author’s intent on telling an historical accurate account.
These concrete facts extend to the survivors’ accounts of the ship’s wreck as well, as Larson explores the realities of what it means to face death and come out on the other side alive. Many passengers noted their pervasive sense of calm during the whole ordeal, and a number commented on the beauty and serenity of the sky as they floated on their backs in the 55 degree water. These passages are what imbues Larson’s novel with the sentiment and verdure of a truly human experience that lifts the “characters” from their places on the page and makes them even more tangible and relatable and empathetic way.
Larson’s historical accuracy as well as the coupling of his statistical reporting and human profiling makes for a thoroughly engaging novel that though it may at times teeter at the edge of tedium, comes out as a strong and informative piece from which readers have much to learn.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania was released by Crown Publishing on March 10, 2015 and can be found at your local bookstore.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review of the text.