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Book Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson (4/5)

9 Feb

My love for the Titanic and my adoration for Erik Larson almost overlapped. To his credit, the Titanic is a bit overdone and the Lusitania is a more unexplored ship with much more political sway. It was a great pick for Larson and another winner by him for sure.

DeadWakeDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Other books by Erik Lason reviewed on this blog:

The Devil and the White City

Summary from Goodreads:

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.

I knew the sinking of the Lusitania was a big reason the US got pulled into WWI, but I didn’t know much else about it. I wasn’t aware of the loss of life or that it was sunk by a U-Boat. The biggest shock to me was the time delay between the boat’s sinking and the US entering the war. As always, Larson did a great job of seeing the event from every angle. We had the British, German, American, passenger, crew, and politician sides of the story. He used as many first-person accounts as possible and helped us care about individuals on board who were saved and lost. Larson really is a master storyteller.

I liked hearing about Wilson best. I didn’t know much about Wilson except his starting the League of Nations. It was easy to like him as a person the way Larson described his courtship. It was all very relevant to know about the loss of his wife and his personal struggles which might have delayed US entry into WWI. He was feeling reluctant to cause anyone else the loss he was enduring and didn’t want to start a war. I wouldn’t have understood the delay if I didn’t have the whole story around Wilson.

It was hard to understand the anxiety the passengers must have been feeling. They had reason to suspect a torpedo attack but at the same time reason to suspect Germany wouldn’t dare. With no other means of transportation, what were they to do? The trip had to be made. Sinking passenger vessels wasn’t normal so it could be ignored. I have really bad anxiety and I can’t imagine myself on that ship. I would have been hyperventilating and wearing my life vest everywhere on board. I assume it has to be like flying after 9/11. It should be safe, you know that, but still…

Larson narrated the sinking very well. It took less than twenty minutes and he helped me understand the panic packed into that time and the fear the passengers experienced. There was so much going on at once. The Titanic took two hours to sink and the Lusitania went down in twenty minutes. That’s amazing and terrifying. The deaths due to incompetence were the saddest to read about to me. Crushes and capsizes were not the way these people thought they would go and it was wrenching to read.

There wasn’t a part of this book I didn’t enjoy. Larson is a really great writer who makes history come alive. I wish he wrote textbooks. Whoever says that history is boring has not read a good history. I highly recommend this book.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Scott Brick. I thought Brick did a good job. He maintained the ominous tone of the book when necessary, especially when talking about the happenings on U-20. I was never distracted by his words and he didn’t pronounce foreign words in such a weird way that it bugged me like some narrators do. He has a good voice for narrative non-fiction but I can’t say how he would be for a fiction work with more speakers.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think narrative non-fiction would be incredibly difficult to write and Larson does a beautiful job. He gives the people feelings and individuality like a real person would have. We hear about specific politicians and passengers and the reader grows to care about each one, hoping they survive the catastrophe. It was great to connect so well with the people in a book because much of history is very dry because the people in it seem so far removed.

A great narrative non-fiction book and recommended for fellow Titanic fans as well. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1900-1919 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson | Ranty Runt of a Reader
BOOK: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015) | Senceless Pie
Dead Wake by Erik Larson | Maurice on Books