BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, March 2015
In an interview some years ago, Erik Larson, author of such bestsellers as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, called himself “an animator of history” rather than a historian. Indeed, he has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania tells in riveting fashion the story of the final voyage of the top-of-the-line British passenger ship, which sailed from New York City on May 1, 1915, and was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland six days later. The magnificent ship went down in only 18 minutes. Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. Among the dead were 123 Americans, and the sinking of the Lusitania is often cited as the reason President Wilson dropped his vow of neutrality and led America into World War I.
But the U.S. entry into the war was more complicated. Larson gets at this complexity by presenting a portrait of Wilson in emotional tumult after the sudden death of his first wife and the dawn of a romance with the woman who would become his second wife. Also contributing to the complexity of international relations were the ruthless actions of the Germans and the machinations of the British Admiralty, headed by Winston Churchill, which in a top-secret effort had cracked German codes and was tracking the U-boat that ultimately sank the Lusitania, but inexplicably did nothing to prevent it.
These are the realpolitik aspects of the story Larson weaves in alternating chapters. But what is most compelling about Dead Wake is that, through astonishing research, Larson gives us a strong sense of the individuals—passengers and crew—aboard the Lusitania, heightening our sense of anxiety as we realize that some of the people we have come to know will go down with the ship.
A story full of ironies and “what-ifs,” Dead Wake is a tour de force of narrative history.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Larson about Dead Wake.