Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Review: 'Dead Wake' by Erik Larson

Almost one hundred years have passed since thirty-two year old Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, the commander of a U-Boat patrolling the waters off the coast of Ireland, ordered his crew to torpedo the Lusitania. She was "a floating village in steel" and "the fastest civilian vessel afloat." This beautifully appointed and luxurious liner sailed out of New York City, bound for Liverpool, England, on May 1, 1915, carrying more than nineteen hundred men, women, and children. According to Erik Larson, author of the well-researched and compelling "Dead Wake," there was ample warning that the Germans might attack. They had previously stated that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction."

Larson explores the character of various people who figured prominently in the tragedy and its aftermath. He uses memoirs, letters, and other documents to "allow readers to experience [this event] as did people who lived through it...." The author quotes First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill; President Wilson (who was determined to keep America from entering the conflict); and Schwieger, the German skipper of Unterseeboot-20. In addition, Larson inserts lively anecdotes about the liner's passengers and crew. We get to know a bit about the personalities of those who survived and those who perished.

The writing is precise, fluid, detailed, and enlightening, with insight into the politics of the time, both in Europe and America. Although the Lusitania's fate is well-known, "Dead Wake" reads like a mystery, in which each piece of the puzzle must fall into place in order for the disaster to occur. Larson poignantly describes the chaotic final moments of the Lusitania, during which stunned passengers scrambled to save themselves and others. This book reminds us that human beings and the machines that they build are not infallible. Furthermore, when nations take up arms against one another, the consequences are often more catastrophic than anyone could have envisioned.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right