Erik Larson has a proven record of chronicling history as it intersects with the lives of individuals, and his latest work is no exception. With his customary astuteness and storytelling aplomb, he describes the events that led up to the demise of the passenger liner Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland prior to America joining World War I. The tragedy cost 1,191 lives and immediately propelled the U.S. closer to war.
Dead Wake displays Larson’s ability to draw intimate portraits of key individuals with a minimum of description. American architect, Theodate Pope, and Lusitania captain, William Turner (both of whom survived the sinking), spring easily and memorably to life. In addition to stories of the ship’s crew and passengers, we learn of newly-widowed President’s Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance with Edith Galt (who became his second wife) and how at times, his feelings regarding that relationship may have influenced developing international events. His descriptions often include striking juxtapositions, such as “nine airships [zeppelins]…sending terrifying shadows scudding across the landscape of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice” (p. 81). Larson captures the mood of this period at the close of the Gilded Age when submarine attacks on ships were increasing and World War I would change the world permanently.
Readers may be surprised to learn that many passengers were well aware of the threat of submarines and that gallows humor was the order of the day on board the vessel. And that the death toll could well have been higher (764 survived), had not the weather been warm and remarkably fine the afternoon of the sinking, facilitating survival and rescue. As is usual with Larson, his legendary powers of description could benefit from the addition of some photographs of the scenes and people he describes, but it is not difficult to find companion books. Readers who enjoy history that has the qualities of entertaining and suspenseful fiction will enjoy this book.