I’ve mentioned my fanatical love for all things Titanic in previous posts. As a pre-teen in 1997, I was ripe to pledge my undying fealty to Leomania. In addition to my attraction to Leonardo DiCaprio’s non-threatening good looks, the stories of the Titanic‘s passengers and the ship itself engaged my interest. This interest extended to other maritime disasters and ships, although none could match my devotion to the unsinkable ship. I’ve been familiar with the disaster story of the Lusitania almost as long as I’ve been a Titanicphile. When I heard rave reviews for Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, I quickly found a copy at the library.
Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania’s doomed transatlantic crossing from the experiences of multiple parties affected by the ship’s sinking. Scenes from the Lusitania and the U-boat that sank it comprise a decent portion of the book. In addition to scenes of “the action”, readers also glimpse into the actions of the American, British, and German governments. Larson leads readers through events starting with the beginning of World War I, describing why a war was being fought in the first place and why the United States was not involved at the time of the Lusitania‘s sinking. Meanwhile, the intelligence officials of Room 40 keep tabs on the German subs surrounding the British Isles. If you’re not a history buff you might be wondering why you should give this book a shot. Well, let me tell you…
Submarine warfare and trench warfare played a huge part in World War I and get their own descriptions, but Larson knows how to balance technical history with personal history so you aren’t bogged down by names, dates, and sub and ship specifications. After lengthy paragraphs about how the Lusitania and U-20 functioned, readers meet crew members and passengers with detailed descriptions of people’s personalities and quirks. Historical non-fiction books can be dry when broad details describe the people involved in a historical event without any sense that they were real, living people with a stake in what was happening in the world. In Dead Wake, the reader gets a distinct view of Captain Turner as an experienced but anti-social mariner. I could imagine Theodate Pope, architect and feminist ahead of her time, being a commanding presence while also battling severe depression. Some passengers are given coverage over a few chapters while only a few get brief mentions, but the overview gives the reader a better idea of exactly who was traversing the Atlantic Ocean and why they were making the journey despite pointed warnings against travel. A point of interest about the Lusitania‘s passengers is the large number of children who were traveling aboard, few of whom survived. The personalities of the U-20 crew and the conditions they lived in while at sea provide a stark contrast to the luxury aboard the Lusitania. Living in cramped, humid, pungent quarters while maintaining stealth was key to the experience of working on a U-boat. Torpedoes were also notoriously faulty and it’s a miracle of circumstance that Lusitania was even hit. Larson contrasts the scenes of Lusitania passengers making tension-breaking jokes about getting hit by torpedoes over lavish dinners to Kptlt. Schwieger and his crew peeping above water looking for targets to great effect. The personal details of the people at the heart of this story made my anxiety increase with every passing chapter. I wondered which of the passengers would survive and what they would experience as the terror behind their macabre jokes came true.
Rating: 4 out of 5 lifeboats