Published by Crown
Publication date: March 10th 2015
Genres: History, Non-fiction
When it comes to taking historic international events and looking behind the scenes there are few who do it as well as Erik Larson. Even when the event itself is substantial in its importance he is able to dig into it and find an aspect to make it even more momentous and, at the same time, personal. His newest work is Dead Wake and it’s about the last crossing of the Lusitania, one of the greatest ocean liners of its time.
Larson begins with insight into the maritime world of the 1900s when submarines were still a largely unused weapon of war. However, as Britain and Germany faced off in World War I, Britain’s naval advantage was such that Germany was forced to utilize it’s superior submarine technology. Where things veered off course, in the court of world opinion, was when Germany began torpedoing merchant (non-military) ships, those carrying cargo, often much needed on the island of Britain. Maritime code, as established in the 19th century prohibited attacks on such vessels but despite this being a code honored by all nations Germany chose to ignore it, culminating in the sinking of the Lusitania, a ship with only innocent human cargo.
Dead Wake gets even more interesting when Larson presents all of the tiny events and circumstances that, on their own would have no impact, but together contribute to a perfect storm. The Lusitania was the pinnacle of oceanic luxury but as a British vessel its sailors were slowly drafted onto military ships when WWI started, meaning that by 1916 its crew did not meet the normal standards of efficiency or ability. The ship also experienced several delays in launching on its final voyage and it cruised at a reduced speed in order to save much needed coal for military vessels.
A recitation of the facts, even with additional background information is not enough to create compelling reading. It is in blending the facts with the personal stories of many of the passengers that Larson hits his stride. For me, the story of Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, was particularly poignant. He was travelling to London with two priceless items—a first edition of A Christmas Carol with handwritten notes by Dickens in the margins and two scrapbooks with over 100 original drawings and illustrations by William Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair). As the ship was sinking he chose to forego getting his books in order to help other passengers escape.
With Larson’s flair for storytelling, backed by copious research, Dead Wake generates waves from beginning to end.