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Dead Wake Book Review

Book Reviews by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

 “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson; Crown Publishing Group; March 2015

One hundred years ago the British luxury ocean liner Lusitania was attacked  and capsized by a German U-boat’s torpedo with 1,265 passengers and almost 700 crew members onboard. Erik Larson’s new book “Dead Wake” chronicles the days, hours and minutes leading up to this disaster, with well-researched information sure to engross readers.

Many of us are somewhat familiar with the sinking of the Lusitania and are aware that the U-boat attack changed the course of history by helping to draw the United States into World War I. Larson gives us fascinating details about this historic event.

On Saturday, May 1, 1915, a notice appeared in New York’s newspapers. The German Embassy in Washington had placed the notice, warning travelers that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction” and that anyone sailing on those ships “do so at their own risk.” The Embassy did not name a specific vessel, but it was widely felt that it was aimed at the Lusitania, part of the British Cunard cruise line, which was set to leave New York for Liverpool that day. The Lusitania was the fastest liner in service and was captained by William T. Turner, the most seasoned captain at Cunard. Turner and his superiors at Cunard took the warning rather lightly, stating that the Lusitania was the “safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine.” Also, civilian ships were generally thought to be safe from attack. Only a few passengers read the notice and most didn’t change their travel plans.

Larson tells of many of the interesting passengers on board along with the workings of the Lusitania, its amenities and how it operated as a fast, luxurious ship. The Lusitania had crossed the Atlantic 201 times previously.

The mechanics and activities of the German U-boat and its crew offer another component to the narrative. Walther Schwieger, the German captain of the attacking U-boat, the U-20, was known among his peers for his kindness and pleasant demeanor. Kaiser Wilhelm had authorized U-boats to sink any ship, without warning, if they thought it was British or French, which left the decision to attack essentially in the hands of the U-boats’ captains.

Of major significance to this story is the secret British intelligence unit, stationed in Room 40 in London that was tracking the U-20’s every move. The existence of Room 40 was known to only a few senior officials, including Winston Churchill, the British Admiralty’s top official. Room 40 was established to decipher and exploit the messages intercepted from the Germans, which was made easier by its possession of a copy of the German codebook. The quandary faced by Room 40 was that reacting to Germany’s moves could reveal that their codes had been broken.

In another facet of the book, President Woodrow Wilson had recently met Edith Bolling Galt and was somewhat engrossed with the prospect of a romantic relationship after struggling with depression and grief following the death of his wife the previous August. Wilson dreaded the thought that America might somehow be drawn into the war in Europe.

Larson creates tension in his book by alternating narratives between the “hunter” and the “hunted.” The story shifts back and forth from the ship to the U-boat to Room 40 to the White House, adding drama and intensity.

Larson, author of the bestselling books “In the Garden of Beasts” and “The Devil in the White City” is a master at non-fiction drama. He brings into play the many forces, some big and some small, that played a part in the sinking of the Lusitania. The word “riveting” is often used to describe a book. “Dead Wake” is truly riveting. Readers already know the outcome of the story and yet the book is full of drama and suspense.

dead wake