Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Cover image of Dead WakeOf the now three Larson books I’ve read, I believe this was my favorite. The two main narratives – that of the Lusitania’s passengers and crew, and that of U-20’s captain, Walther Schwieger – are more closely intertwined than the two parallel (but never intersecting) narratives of Devil in the White City. The story itself was more compelling and clear than that in In the Garden of Beasts (in that book, I remember being frustrated with the main characters’ inability or unwillingness to read the writing on the wall).

As in many disaster narratives, there are so many “what if” moments and missed opportunities, from seemingly small ones like a two-hour delay leaving New York on May 1, 1915 (which would have meant sailing through the dangerous area off the Irish coast in the fog, when the U-boat couldn’t have attacked the ship, instead of in clear weather), to truly staggering ones like the information that the Admiralty withheld from Captain Turner and the Cunard line, and the protection they denied the Lusitania.

The additional story threads – that of President Wilson’s ultimately successful wooing of Edith Galt and his reluctance to enter the war, and the existence and activity of the secret Room 40 in the UK (a sort of Bletchley-before-Bletchley) – were relevant additions, particularly the latter. The Lusitania disaster could have been avoided had the Admiralty acted on any one of several pieces of knowledge; the fact that they didn’t does seem, in hindsight at least, to implicate them as attempting to bring the U.S. into the war on the Allied side, even as they tried to keep the Germans from knowing they had obtained their code books.

Late in the book, there is a damning quote from naval historian Patrick Beesly: “On the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.” If this was the British intention, it didn’t work, at least not right away; the U.S. didn’t join the war until 1917.

Well-researched as always, Dead Wake should please Larson fans, as well as Titanic and WWI buffs. My ARC didn’t include the map at the beginning that the final copy is meant to have, and some images would have added to the story, but it was still quite satisfying.

I received an Advance Reader’s Edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I was not compensated for this review in any way, unless you count the free book.

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4 thoughts on “Dead Wake by Erik Larson

  1. Loved both of his others. I can’t wait to check this one out! Thanks for the wonderful words! If you’re ever interested in checking out some other great reviews, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!

  2. Will you be going to see him tonight? Did I tell you already that this is the selected book for Winnetka-Northfield’s “One Book, Two Villages” program? I finished the book March 3, and the program kick-off was pub. day, Tuesday, March 10!

  3. Pingback: Required Reading | Library &

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