Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Written by Erik Larson

Dead Wake


I have a love/hate with Erik Larson, and it’s probably not his fault.  The one and only book club I was ever a part of read Devil in the White City.  I had some issues with that book, and my book club didn’t really seem to want to talk about it.  They basically had a list of quiz questions that we all answered…no discussion.  So every time I read one of his books, that frustration emerges again.

That said, I really like the perspective Larson has on historical events.  He finds moments in history about which many of us are unfamiliar or adds a unique perspective to big events.  And much of what bothered me about Devil in the White City has been corrected in subsequent books.

The Story

Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania, a civilian luxury liner that a German U-boat sank in 1915.  The story follows not just the ship and select passengers, but also the story of the German U-boat and its crew.  Larson also adds a global perspective to the incident with his reading of its impact on President Wilson and the eventual entry of the United States into World War I.

The Good

Larson relates his tales more like fiction that traditional textbook-style non-fiction.  I know I talk about this a lot, but I will always rate a book higher if it is more readable.  And Dead Wake is readable.  Larson weaves the tale with a sense of immediacy and tension that other historians should envy.

This book also does an excellent job of placing the human tragedy in a greater context.  Without lecturing and condescension, Larson explains the political climate, the economic climate, and diplomatic questions surrounding not just the sinking of the ship but the relationship of the United States to the world around her.  I learned so much about the US in the early 1900’s as well as the early years of WWI.  But I learned it in a way that did not make me feel like I was back in Mrs. Haskell’s History class (not that she was a bad teacher…she was quite good).

I appreciated the manner in which Larson presented his material.  It would be easy to take sides, but he did a great job of staying impartial.  It allowed you to put yourself in the shoes of the major players and try to understand what happened and why.  This technique also made these very real people seem real.  With fictional characters, I assume that this is an easier task, but trying to develop real, relatable human beings from historical documents has got to be extremely difficult.  Larson does this in a way that makes it difficult to remember that this is a true story.

The Not-So-Good

My biggest issue with this book was the pacing.  Larson would forshadow, then race ahead, then hint that something was coming (perhaps the sinking of the ship…?), then come to a complete halt to go back to poor President Wilson and his broken heart.  I understand the “subplot” of President Wilson.  You can’t sink the Lusitania and not understand her impact on global politics.  But the sections about Wilson were weak.  The whole story there was: Wilson’s wife died, he was depressed, the ship sank, he found steel and surprised everyone with his resolve.  I suspect there was far more to Woodrow Wilson than that.

The story would be improved by one of two changes.  One would be to make Wilson peripheral to the story.  Tell us the US was isolationist and then entered the war partly in response to the sinking of the Lusitania.  Or, alternately, flesh Wilson out.  Expand the story and tell us more.  Larson’s books ate fairly short.  He has room to do a bit more.  Instead it comes off as one-dimensional and gimmicky — Lovelorn President declares war!!

Final Thoughts

This was a readable book that make history accessible.  Despite my critique, this is the sort of book that can convince people to give history another shot.  The sinking of the Lusitania was tragic, and newly released historical documents shed additional light on the incident.

This book was haunting in its realism.  I felt chills when faced with the stories of those who died.  And I felt what it was like to captain a U-boat.  I counted your blessings and wondered at quirks of fate.  I said a prayer for those who lived, those who died, and those who helped.  And I had to remind myself, over and over again, that this was not fiction.