Jacket (1)This won’t be a spoiler if you know anything about history.  The luxury ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed out of action on May 7, 1915, killing 1,195 passengers and crew including 27 out of 33 infants on board.  Of those killed, 123 were Americans.  The Lusitania was the most luxurious ship in service.  Wasn’t America, a neutral country in a war already ravaging Europe, exempt from the targets of unseen German U-boats skirting the underseas of the Atlantic? No one in his or her right mind would have booked tickets on this fastest and biggest of ships if they had thought otherwise. Once again, Erik Larson has plopped us right down in the middle of an historical tragedy and beguiled us with stories of the Lusitania’s passengers–with their intrigues, their treasures, and celebrities like the Vanderbilts–all aboard a doomed ship, in the freshly released Dead Wake. He’s done it before in his widely acclaimed books In the Garden of BeastsIsaac’s Storm, and The Devil in the White CityLarson succeeds in describing individuals on both sides of the war with similar hopes and fears.  He renders the captain of the Unterseeboot-20, Walter Schwieger, not only as a man with a mission from the highest levels of German admiralty, but also as a human being, burdened by grief and empathy after seeing the damage and suffering he has inflicted on the passengers of the ill-fated ocean liner.
While Larson so easily engages us in the lives of the passengers, he adeptly describes the lives of those on land who are central to the politics of the time.  He casts Woodrow Wilson as a melancholic widower whose black moods often trumped his interest in a world at war.  But Larson, seemingly an exuberant writer and optimistic sort, doesn’t let us drivel in the mire of the strictly personal for long.  He has a history to tell and the facts galore keep us grounded, moving forward, and educated in such a way that we hardly realize we’ve come to understand such scientific things as, say, how a boat floats.

Historically, we see the blunders made by governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the significance of the Lusitania as a deciding factor in entering WWI, secret codes intercepted and decoded by the British in equally secret places, lifeboats that kill rather than save as they are loosened from their moorings.  Larson is one of the best writers of our time at making history come alive through facts and personalities woven together.  I finished this book in just three days.  And I only read before going to bed.


Written by Pat