Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

In 1915, the Great War was in full swing and the luxury ocean liner Lusitania was set to sail from the U.S. to the U.K.  Despite Germany declaring the seas surrounding Britain to be a war zone, passengers and crewmen alike were strangely at ease.  Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, placed a great deal of faith in the ship’s speed as well as the gentlemanly rule of war that kept civilians safe during transport.  However Walther Schwieger, the captain of a German U-boat, seemed more than willing to throw away the rule book and take down any civilian ships that dared to enter his war zone.

While at its core Larson’s Dead Wake is about the collision course involving the Lusitania and Schwieger’s U-boat, he attempts to humanize the conflict by expanding the story to include the crews of both vessels as well as several of the passengers.  In doing so, Larson adds another layer to what history paints as a simple act of war.  He also asks the questions: could Britain have done more to keep the Lusitania safe or did they only do enough to ensure the United States joined the conflict following the deaths of hundreds of US civilians?

Dead Wake is the third book of Larson’s I’ve read and while his intense appetite for research is front and centre, I felt this particular book became bogged down with excessive detail.  I didn’t much care for Woodrow Wilson’s pining nor did I find the day to day activities aboard the Lusitania all that interesting, especially his penchant for describing the various attire of different passengers at random points.

It takes roughly two hundred and fifty pages for the ships to meet and while the horror of the disaster was compelling, the journey was exhausting.  I started this book shortly after its release this past March but put it aside when I found I just couldn’t get into it.  I picked it up again last week and finished it but it didn’t take long for me to remember my dissatisfaction.

Larson is a terrific writer and while his intense research is something to behold, he’s certainly written better books – Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts to be exact – so, I’m not about to write him off.  Do yourself a favour and check out the aforementioned stories first before picking up Dead Wake.

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