Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Rate this book
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, 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 anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era's great transatlantic "Greyhounds" 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. He knew, moreover, that his ship - the fastest then in service - could outrun any threat.

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, mystery, and real-life suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to President Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster that helped place America on the road to war.

430 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2015

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Erik Larson

48 books65.2k followers
Erik Larson’s latest work of narrative nonfiction is DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller. His saga of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing, and lingered on various NYT best-seller lists for the better part of a decade. Hulu plans to adapt the book for a limited TV series, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese as executive producers. Erik’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, about America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film.

His next book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ, due out in early spring 2020, is a story of geopolitical brinksmanship during Churchill’s first year as prime minister, but also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country house, Chequers, and his “full-moon home,” Ditchley, where Churchill, his family, and his “Secret Circle” convene when the moon is in its brightest phases and the bombing threat is highest.

Erik is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and other publications.

He has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the University of Oregon, and the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and has spoken to audiences from coast to coast. A former resident of Seattle, he now lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and author of the nonfiction memoir, ALMOST HOME, which, as Erik puts it, "could make a stone cry." They have three daughters in far-flung locations and professions.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
49,856 (36%)
4 stars
59,079 (43%)
3 stars
21,254 (15%)
2 stars
3,939 (2%)
1 star
2,161 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 12,917 reviews
Profile Image for Jill.
1,169 reviews1,645 followers
May 31, 2016
When a new Erik Larson arrives, I drop everything and read it. In my book, he’s one of the few authors who can make history positively come alive. And his opening note held forth a big promise: “I give you now the saga of the Lusitania and the myriad forces, large and achingly small, that converged one lovely day in May 1915 to produce a tragedy of monumental scale, whose true character and import have long been obscured in the mists of history.”

My first thought was: “WHAT true character and import? Everyone knows about the Lusitania – sunk by a U-2 torpedo and finally propelling America head-first into WW I.” Well, after finishing, I stand corrected. The story of the Lusitania still offers up many secrets.

Unlike Mr. Larson’s former books, this one is slow opening. The focus is not an individual (as it is in Isaac’s Storm, the Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck and In The Garden of Beasts, with history as a backdrop), but squarely on the story of the Lusitania. So the first 80 pages or so set the stage: the winds of war in Europe, the background of the Lusitania and its captain, William Thomas Turner.

But when the Lusitania begins its voyage? Wow! Nearly 2,000 passengers were aboard and also, 170 tons of Remington rifle ammunition, making it a clear and attractive target to the Germans. The passengers were not unaware that U-2 boats were bringing terror to the North Atlantic seas. We meet several of them throughout these pages: the ones who will live, the ones who will die. And we also catch many glimpses of the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, a widower who is distracted by a new (and ultimately, enduring) love affair that diverts his attention from the world stage.

The book is filled with questions worth asking: why did the Admiralty not provide an escort to the Lusitania, given that the ship carried a vital cargo of ammunition and artillery shells? Why did British intelligence obsessively protect the HMS Orion and provide no protection to the Lusitania? Why did they not divert he Lusitania to the newer and safer North Channel route? And most of all, “why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?” Did the British deliberately set up the Lusitania to force America’s hand to enter the war?

Hanging over the story of the Lusitania is its rendezvous with destiny. Had U-2 captain Schwieger not overestimated the ship’s speed, if the Lusitania had departed precisely on time, if Capt. Turner had not made a final turn to starboard, had the torpedo failed (60 percent of torpedoes DID fail), there would not be a Lusitania story. And one last question remains: did the Lusitania, in fact, cause the U.S. to enter the war or was there more to the story? Read Dead Wake and find out!
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
August 23, 2019
”He saw the body of the torpedo moving well ahead of the wake, through water he described as being ‘a beautiful green.’ The torpedo ‘was covered with a silvery phosphorescence, you might term it, which was caused by the air escaping from the motors.’

He said, ‘It was a beautiful sight.’”

 photo Lusitania_zpsytucrr7b.jpg
The last known photo of the Lusitania.

The term unsinkable had been obliterated from references regarding great ocean liners after the Titanic sunk in 1912. The impossible had already happened. In 1915 the Lusitania had made 202 voyages across the Atlantic. She was a floating beauty, spacious, luxurious, and fast. She was capable of 25 knots and could quickly leave behind any German U-boats who may have had thoughts of trying to sink her.

Captain William Thomas Turner was not too worried about the Germans, despite the increase in the number of ships being sunk. He couldn’t fathom that they would be so bold or so cruel as to sink a ship filled with women and children. There had to be some niggling doubt though when the Germans sent a telegram warning people to reconsider taking trips across the Atlantic.

 photo William_Thomas_Turner_1915_zps4kerncaq.jpg
Captain William Thomas Turner in that fateful year 1915.

I was somewhat baffled at the number of people still choosing to travel through an aggressive war zone. We’ve all heard the adage all is fair in love and war, but in the past there had always been a few rules in war regarding innocent people. Walther Schwieger, the captain of the Unterseeboot-20, didn’t adhere to any rules except the rule of engagement. His country was at war with the British, and a ship owned by the British, whether it was transporting supplies for the war effort or transporting noncombatants, was of equal interest to him. He, after all, was competing with his fellow U-Boat captains to see who could sink the most tonnage. Well, the Lusitania, at 31,550 tons, would put him over the top.

 photo Walther20Schwieger_zpsrpbfw7xj.jpg
Walther Schwieger

Some people had booked passage, but had decided at the last moment not to go. ”Alta Piper, the daughter of the famous medium, never made it aboard; neither did she refund her ticket. Unable to ignore the night’s voices, but also apparently unable to step forth and just cancel, she chose the path taken by indecisive people throughout history and spent the morning of departure packing and repacking her bags, over and over, letting the clock run out, until at last she heard the distant horn marking the ship’s departure.”

I have a feeling she had an insistent tingle in the back of her neck.

Erik Larson does a wonderful job introducing us to the passengers. My favorite was Charles Lauriat, an antiquarian bookseller, who talked a client into letting him borrow Charles Dicken’s very own copy of A Christmas Carol with notes from the great writer about a lawsuit he was fighting in the margins. He wanted to take it to London to allow another researcher to copy down Dicken’s notes. This might be the ultimate example, exhibit A, in NOT letting a friend borrow a book. There was also Theodate Pope, the famous pioneering architect, who managed to break into a profession completely dominated by men.

 photo Charles_E_Lauriat_Company_Boston_zpsxung361j.jpg

Because they survived, Larson is able to share with us some very personal observations of what happened before, during, and after the torpedo struck the ship. Part of the problem is there was 1,959 passengers and crew on board, and the ship sank in 18 minutes. How much time is lost while you decide if the ship is actually going to sink? It was dumb luck that Schwieger happened to place the torpedo in the exact spot to insure that the ship would go down. Pandemonium ensued.

1,195 perished.

Lots of questions were asked after the event. The picking up of extra, as it turned out very unlucky, passengers from another ship delayed their departure and increased the risk of U-Boats having time to get into position. The black smoke poured from only three of the four funnels, which cut the speed of the ship from 25 knots to 21 knots, but saved 1600 tons of coal, a money saving decision made by Cunard due to fewer people risking the trip than normal. This reduction in engines also added a day of travel. Turner did not use a zigzag motion once he reached U-Boat infested waters. The biggest question which didn’t receive enough attention or consideration was where was the Royal Navy? They should have been escorting the liner once it was this close to the Irish coast.

Change one thing and the Lusitania would not have sunk on this trip.

Turner came under heavy criticism, even from Winston Churchill himself, but was eventually cleared of all wrongdoings. Schwieger, if he felt any remorse for killing so many innocent people, never shared it. He did sink the most tonnage so bully for him. I hope he got a f**king plaque.

I, for many years, like many Americans, thought that the sinking of the Lusitania was the impetus for getting America in the war. America did not enter the war for another two years. The reason given, other than the moral reasons for coming to the defense of our cousins in Britain, was the famous Zimmermann telegram.

Larson also threads through the plot the trials and tribulations of Woodrow Wilson as he tries to convince Edith Bolling Galt to marry him. You would think the poor woman wore bacon underwear the way he convorted after her.

So many things had to go wrong for the Lusitania to come under the cold, calculating eyes of Schwieger and the gunsights of U-Boat 20. All of them lined up, even the final blow when Turner shifted directions at the perfect moment to give Schwieger the angle he needed. It is a compelling story told by a veteran writer who knows how to pace and weave a story that, even when you know the outcome, you can’t help but throw your bag together, hop up the gangplank, and marvel at the devil in the details.

 photo Lusitania20Wreck_zpsfnwke5sa.jpg
The wreck of the Lusitania at the bottom of the ocean.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,296 reviews120k followers
July 4, 2019
Dead Wake is named a 2015 notable non fiction book by the Washington Post

The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, the trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.”
On May 7, 1914, only a few years after that most famous of ocean-liners had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, RMS Lusitania, popularly referred to as “Lucy,” having already crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, this time carrying 1,962 souls, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast. Almost 1200 people perished. Erik Larson casts his perceptive eyes on the event, looking for explanations. Why was the ship sunk? Had it been possible for the ship to have avoided its fate? What were the global circumstances at the time and how did those effect the disaster? Who and what was on the ship? Why? What was the big deal about the Lusitania? Other ships had been sunk by U-boats during this conflict. How did the sinking of the Lusitania affect American entry into The Great War?

The New York Times headline - From PBS

We all have preconceptions, notions that hardly seem worth examining. I expect for most of us, the details of the sinking of the Lusitania are clouded by the fog of time. We might believe that, as with the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba, the national response was immediate and violent. Turns out the reality was far different.

Artist rendering of the sinking - from Cinewiki.wikispaces.com

Larson looks at events in several threads. Mostly he follows the events on the Lusitania and on the German sub (U-20 - U-boat is an abbreviation of Unterseeboot, or undersea boat) that would bring it down. In parallel, he looks at the politics involved in, not so much the causes of World War I, but in the stages between the commencement of hostilities and the eventual drawing of the USA into the war. He looks at the milieu in which American president Woodrow Wilson existed, politically and personally. He looks at the people involved in making tactical decisions, and at a special, secret intelligence gathering location in the UK. He stops, also, for a look at the sad accumulation of the victims in Ireland.

Larson offers a view of the Lusitania that might not be obvious to those of us looking back a hundred years. We might, for example, think of it as a relatively slow moving ocean liner, but it was the fastest civilian ship of its time. Its exceptional speed was a major selling point. There is plenty more detail about the ship, the different sorts of lifeboats, with their potential benefits and downsides, the unusual hull it used. Lucy carried a relatively inexperienced crew, due to so many able-bodied seamen having been drawn into the military. New, unusual life vests were used on the ship, and training in their use was lacking, as was training in using the lifeboats.

The sinking was used for recruiting – in Britain and the USA

On the other side, it is remarkable how fragile U-boats were, and the limitations they faced in pursuing their mission. Larson offers us a look aboard the sub that did the deed, captain’s log and all. How fast were these boats? What was their range? What was their mission, their command structure? What was the physical environment like for submariners? What could they not do? Where could they not go? How did they keep in touch with their land-based command? What were their orders? What was the mindset of the captain, of his crew? Lots to look at here, eye-opening stuff. Don’t sign me up for life on a sub.

The wrecked U-20 after a failed attempt to scuttle - from Lusitania.net

And of course there was the interaction between militaries. How did the allies cope with the very effective plague the U-boats presented? Could they track them? If so, how did they track them? What were the capabilities of the super-secret Room 40? What was the decision process the German command used in deciding how to use this powerful weapon?

Room 40 - from Lusitania.net

One thing Larson does is follow the narrative of several of the passengers aboard the big boat. This brings the disaster away from technical details to actual human experience. You will get to know some of the passengers, and learn their fates.

There is a wealth of information in Dead Wake. For example, the biggest surprise for most readers, and perhaps the most controversial element in the book is the suggestion that Britain did not exactly do all it might have to protect Lucy from enemy attack, as there were some at the highest levels of government who believed that such an event might hasten the enlistment of the USA into the war. There were other factors for sure that contributed to why Lucy was where she was when she was, but most of those lack the bitter flavor of dark calculation. And maintaining the sour taste is a description of how shameless members of the admiralty sought to evade personal responsibility for the sinking by pointing fingers at a designated patsy. Despite the denials all around that the Lusitania was purely a civilian ship, the fact was that it was carrying a considerable supply of military materiel for use against Germany. Lucy would most definitely have had some ‘splaining to do’ had it been known that supposedly neutral America was using her as a military transport to support the Allies.

Erik Larson - from New Hampshire Public Radio

There is plenty of drama to go around here. Even though we know what will happen, Larson succeeds in instilling tension into the coming together of Lucy with her killer. The descriptions of life aboard the sub are compelling; information about the physical realities of the Lusitania is fascinating, and looking at the probable decision-making involved is enraging.

This is not to say that there are no rents in the hull taking on a bit of the briny. While it seemed clear that tracking individual passengers was intended to take the story from an emotionally removed overview down a bit closer to sea level, I found that most of these passages were not all that engaging. It also seemed not entirely clear that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic situation was necessarily all that important in his reluctance to bring the USA into the war.

On the other hand there are bits that are depressingly resonant with more contemporary outrages, as left hands not keeping right hands informed of their actions contributed to the ultimate catastrophe. Information that could have identified a sub in a shipping lane was available, but was not put together in time. Very reminiscent of 9/11. Our species certainly seems well practiced in learning nothing from history. One contributing factor was a corporate cost-cutting measure that kept Lucy from making her best time across the Atlantic. Had she been allowed to use all four of her boilers instead of only three, she would never have encountered U-20. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, and many more such incidents remind us that pursuit of the almighty dollar/pound/euro/(insert your currency here) will always be assigned a higher value than human life or the safety of the environment for many of the people making such decisions.

President Wilson and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill

Germany actually posted newspaper notices in American newspapers, before the Lusitania set sail from New York City, that all ships entering what was considered a war zone were at risk of being sunk. It would not be the last time clear messages of intent from Germany would be ignored to our everlasting regret.
Dead Wake is a wonderful piece of writing, not only diving down into details of what is probably a murky subject for most of us, offering a greater understanding of the physical event, but providing a context within which we can achieve a greater understanding of the causes and implications of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. As a bit of historical reporting is it definitely a case of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Review originally posted – 7/3/15

Publication dates
-----3/10/15 - hardcover
-----3/22/16 - paperback

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Lusitania Online is a wonderful source for all things Lucy

Video from the National Archives of passengers arriving and Lucy embarking on its final voyage- the first 1:50 is mostly people getting out of cars, so feel free to skip ahead a bit

A 1918 animation of the sinking

Arthur Conan Doyle’s story Danger! was written about 18 months before the outbreak of WWI. It anticipated in considerable detail the submarine warfare to come. You can read it on Gutenberg. In the preface to the 1918 collection in which it appears, Doyle noted that he attempted to present his notions to the government, noting that he:
…did indeed adopt every possible method, that he personally approached leading naval men and powerful editors, that he sent three separate minutes upon the danger to various public bodies, notably to the Committee for National Defence, and that he touched upon the matter in an article in The Fortnightly Review. In some unfortunate way subjects of national welfare are in this country continually subordinated to party politics, so that a self-evident proposition, such as the danger of a nation being fed from without, is waved aside and ignored, because it will not fit in with some general political shibboleth.
If this reminds you at all of Bill Clinton and Richard Clarke trying to warn the incoming Bush administration of the danger presented by Osama bin Laden, it should.

Other Erik Larson books I have read
----- 2003 - The Devil in the White City
----- 2006 - Thunderstruck
----- 2011 - In the Garden of Beasts
----- 2017 - Isaac’s Storm - not reviewed
Profile Image for Matt.
919 reviews28.3k followers
April 26, 2016
When I came across a radio interview with Erik Larson, talking about his new Lusitania book, Dead Wake, I knew I had to have it. I was excited. Like, I’m going to buy this on my phone as soon as I park my car excited.

As many of you know, I’m deep into a World War I reading project. I’ve collected so many new titles that my kids are never going to college. The Lusitania sinking was a moral turning point in the war. It turned American opinion inexorably against Germany. It also sowed no small amount of disarray in German submarine policy. It is not quite the Pearl Harbor it is made out to be, but it is immensely important. Thus, the Lusitania is a required topic in WWI studies. (Also, it should be noted, I am a Titanic buff, and the Lusitania sinking is a close cousin in the disaster family).

So there was no doubt I’d read this book. That didn't mean I expected to love it. A couple things gave me pause.

First, I am not an unabashed Larson admirer. I liked Isaac’s Storm, his book on the Galveston hurricane, but I liked it in the sense that I like the sandwich I eat for lunch every day. That is to say nourishing, but nothing to sing from the rooftops. I was also a bit worried by his guileless admission to knowing next to nothing about the Lusitania when he started researching the book. It’s foolish to expect a person to be an expert before he starts his research, but his lack of basic knowledge (such as the fact that the ship sank in 1915 and American did not enter the war until 1917) gave me pause. I didn't want to read some hasty work of dilettantism meant to capitalize on centenary interest of the lost liner.

My worries were for naught. This is, in fact, an excellent book. It is not the definitive account of the Lusitania (I think Diana Preston’s book is more thorough), but it is far and away the best. Every book about a sinking ship is eventually compared to Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. It is a natural law. Nothing can exceed Lord, of course, but Larson does a damn fine imitation.

The Titanic sank at a stately 2 hours and 40 minutes after striking an iceberg on April 14, 1912. That lengthy time-period is part of the reason for the many dramatic retellings. Everyone on board that doomed vessel had time to take a breath, look hard into their own soul, and decide what kind of person they were. Managing Director J. Bruce Ismay stepped into a lifeboat. Isidor and Ida Strauss did not. Whatever else their decisions meant (life or death, chiefly), they are godsends to the dramatist interested in the human ability to flourish or crumble under duress.

The Lusitania, on the other hand, was hit by a single torpedo fired by the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915. The impact caused incredible damage, heightened by mysterious sympathetic explosions (coal-dust or burst steam pipes, most likely; almost certainly not munitions) that destroyed the Lusitania's steering and power. The ship was locked into a turn with the propellers still churning forward. She sank in eighteen minutes while developing such a severe starboard list that her starboard boats swung far away from the decks, while the portside boats couldn’t be lowered because they were flush against the hull. The evacuation was a disaster, compounded by the loss of many trained crewmembers to the navy. There was no order, no law, no “women and children first.” The ship sank within sight of land, but in terms of help, they were so far from civilization they might as well have been on the Moon. 1,198 people died: 1,195 passengers and crew, plus 3 German stowaways. (There was a large percentage of kids on board, including infants. In terms of standing a chance at survival on that tilting, plunging deck... It might be best not to think about it).

The chaotic nature of the sinking makes for a difficult narrative. Larson solves this problem by paring down his scope to focus on just a handful of people, chief among them the Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, the female architect Theodate Pope, and crewmember Leslie Morton. He also chooses to mostly ignore the better-known personages. For instance, Alfred Vanderbilt, the ship’s most famous (and wealthy) passenger, rates only 6 mentions in the index.

Larson also spends a great deal of time with Captain Turner, the Lusitania’s master – like Captain Smith, an old sea dog who never learned a new trick – and the U-20’s commander, Walter Schwieger. Oddly, Larson also devotes an inordinate amount of space to President Woodrow Wilson and his burgeoning love affair with Edith Bolling Galt. He quotes extensively from Wilson’s moony letters. In a different book, say, a biography of Wilson, this would make perfect sense. Here, it’s just a needless distraction. The space could have been better served by finding another passenger to follow. (Or with some freaking pictures! How does a major release like this not rate an inset?)

Dead Wake is structured like a suspense thriller. Larson utilizes short, punchy chapters that cut between Wilson’s maudlin romance in Washington, D.C.; the intelligence operatives in Great Britain’s secret Room 40; the curmudgeonly Captain Turner and his wealthy passengers on the Lusitania (this is the second Lusitania title I've read in short order that ignores the very existence of steerage passengers); and Captain Schweiger and his crew of the small but formidable U-20.

The scenes set aboard the U-20 are among the book’s best. Larson admits to enjoying this part the most during the writing and research process, and it shows. He fills these sections with pungent, tactile details about the cramped conditions, the myriad dangers, and the many horrible smells a WWI submariner faced.

First there was the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, who wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called a “U-boat baptism.” The odor of diesel fuel infiltrated all corners of the boat, ensuring that every cup of cocoa and piece of bread tasted of oil. Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions.

The attack on the Lusitania and her sinking is told in vivid, lucid prose.

That first turmoil, that first bubble of foam, was the expulsion of compressed air from the submarine’s launching tube as the torpedo exited. The torpedo itself was 20 feet long and 20 inches in diameter; its nose, shaped like the top of a corn silo, contained 350 pounds of TNT and an explosive called Hexanite…It moved at about 35 knots, or 40 miles an hour, powered by compressed air stored in a tank toward its nose, just behind the compartment that contained the explosives. The air rushed against the pistons in its engine, geared to spin two propellers, one clockwise, the other counterclockwise, to keep the torpedo from rolling and veering…As the torpedo advanced, the water rushing past its nose turned a small propeller, which unscrewed a safety device that prevented detonation during storage. This propeller slipped from the nose and fell to the sea bottom, thereby exposing a triggering mechanism that upon impact with a ship’s hull would fire a small charge into the larger body of explosives…The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, this trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.”

I mentioned above that Larson focuses his narrative on a small number of passengers. Before the sinking he spends a great deal of time on their biographies; a lot of this detail feels mundane and misplaced. You might wonder why you have to learn so much about Charles Lauriat’s bookselling business. Well, the payoff comes when Larson shifts into the Lusitania’s final agony. You are very much invested in the stories of the passengers and crew struggling to survive because so much time has been devoted to them. (It’s strange, but I when I read, I generally feel a stronger emotional connection to fictional characters than to actual historical people, because fictional characters are given more detail, more life. Nonfiction personages often come across like the stone monuments that now memorialize them. Larson does a good job of making real people seem, well, real).

I’ve now got several Lusitania books under my belt. I didn't learn anything new in Dead Wake. Indeed, there is more information to be found in other sources. However, this is by far the most compelling, the most riveting presentation of this story, and also one of the better works of history I’ve read in awhile. Whether you’re a World War I buff celebrating the centenary, or a casually interested reader laying beneath the sun while on the deck of a hopefully-non-sinking cruise ship, this is a great choice.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,828 followers
January 14, 2016
This reminded me a lot of the movie Titantic not just because it’s about a disaster at sea, but also it would have been a lot shorter and better without the romantic subplot. Only in this case it was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt instead of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Although I gotta admit that the scene when ole Woody sketched Edith in the nude was pretty hot…..

Wait. I might have mixed something up there.

This is part of the continuing trend of Erik Larson’s books for me. He has this weird knack of being able to write something that is about 50% interesting, but the other 50% always seems like it’s him stretching to tie some other kind of element to give it a hook it doesn’t really need. He can’t just tell us the story behind the 1893 World’s Fair, he has to make half the book about a serial killer. (Some people would tell you that it’s vice versa as to what’s good about that one). Or instead of doing a non-fiction pop history novel about the invention of the wireless by Marconi, he had to tie it into the capture of a famous murderer of the day. Giving a day-to-day account of living in Nazi Germany wasn’t good enough so he had to put half the focus on a promiscuous American woman and her boring father in Berlin.

So this time out we’ve got the sinking of the Lusitania, a fascinating historical event about which many intriguing questions remain to this day, and yet a good chunk of this book is spent detailing how President Wilson found love again after the death of his first wife. If this was a book about Wilson, or if it was some kind of deep dive into his response to the attack where knowing his mindset at the time is critical to the story, then I might understand why so much time is spent on detailing how the two of them met and how their courtship progressed.

However since none of those things really matter I had that that same feeling while reading that I had when watching the aforementioned Titantic: Quit falling in love and hit the damn iceberg already. (Only it’s a German U-boat instead of a chunk of ice this time.)

As usual with the parts I actually care about Larson does a pretty decent job of creating narrative history to give us a vivid account of what life was like for the passengers and crew of the ship as well as the Germans on the submarine. He also gives us a good idea of the touchy political situation that existed between the various nations involved because of World War I.

He does seem to prefer doling out trivia and anecdotes rather than dealing in any meaningful way with the bigger questions of the event. The conspiracy theories about why England didn’t do more to protect the ship and speculation about the what caused a secondary explosion after the torpedo hit are barely touched on, but at the same time I know what kind of wallpaper was in the reading salon on board. Or I learned that Woody and Edith ate chicken salad on their wedding night, but nothing is said about the critical role she later played in his administration after he suffered a stroke later.

It’s not bad, but it’s also a fairly shallow look that seems more interested in telling you what happened rather than really digging into the questions of how or why it did. It’s like the Hollywood screenplay version of history. With romance!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
November 8, 2015
Larson writes wonderful narrative non fiction, and in this book he has surpassed his own self. The amount of research that went into this book is staggering. It doesn't just cover the bombing of the Lusitania, it covers everything going once at the time and more.

What it is like inside a submarine, the roles of the crew members, how it feels and even how it smells. president Wilson's grief at the death of his wife and his courting of his second wife. The career of the Captain of the Lusitania and the quirks in his personality. What the ship looked like, inside and out, the decorations, the food, the labor involved. The passengers, the famous and those not. The politics of the day, what secrets were known when and how. It is extraordinarily detailed but I was never bored, found it all fascinating. So much history set down for me to enjoy.

There is only one Larson book I was not crazy about, that one remains half finished, but this is an author whose books I buy to reread and savor. By the end of the book, I had a clear and concise picture of so many things I had never knew before. Also had gotten to know some of the people on the ship and was devastated that some of them were the ones who died. A horrible tragedy bought to life, to be remembered and learned from, if only. Amazing.

Profile Image for Brian.
689 reviews332 followers
January 3, 2022
"I am afraid a more serious breach may at any time occur, for they seem to have no regard for the consequences."

When it comes to writing historical narratives Erik Larson is one of the best in the business. He is so good at using a pivotal event/moment in history as a point to begin examining the age in which it occurred. His books are always about the era through the lens of one event. “Dead Wake” proves to be no exception.

Some strengths of the book include Part II of the text when Larson writes short quick chapters, jumping from four main locales (U-20, the Lusitania, England, and Washington DC). The quick pacing makes the reader barrel toward a climax that they know is inevitable. It is a nice device. Actually the entire book moves along at a quick pace, but once the torpedo hits the Lusitania Larson kicks the book into high gear and the reader feels like they are being propelled full bore down the halls of history. You will find yourself holding your breath as Larson depicts the 18 minutes it took the mighty ocean liner to sink.

Like all Larson, a single event is used to illuminate an age. And like all great books about history, “Dead Wake” makes it real and relevant by expertly recreating the humanity of its players. They are us, and we are them.

If Erik Larson writes a book I will read it!
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,839 followers
May 9, 2016
Driving back from a vacation to Tampa Bay followed by having to mow my lawn after 10 days away allowed me to finish this 13 hour audiobook in about 24 hours.

Also, it is a Scott Brick audio which is a huge bonus!

Larson does it again with an intriguing look into a major event in history. It is well researched and he does a great job integrating other anecdotes of the time to create a picture of America before they joined WWI and the antagonism between England and Germany early on during the war.

While I think this book would be best appreciated by someone with an interest in history, there is enough going on here that I think some may be surprised at how much they enjoy it.

I will say that even though I did only listen to it, I think some may take in the historical details better listening than reading (kinda like watching and being fascinated by a show on the History channel about something you never thought would interest you)
Profile Image for Mona.
484 reviews283 followers
February 21, 2016
Excellent Retelling of the Sinking of the Lusitania

I don't read a lot of nonfiction.

But Erik Larson's books read like novels.

He's an excellent writer. He choses historical events that contain a compelling story. He fills the books with details that bring the time, place, and people to life. He does an enormous amount of research.

I loved Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, a story about the Chicago world's fair and the convergence of two men, one the fair's architect, the other a serial killer.

So when I saw he'd come out with a new book, I got hold of the audio as soon as I could get it.

The story was not quite as compelling as The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Perhaps in part this was because there were stories about many people instead of the focus on the two main characters as in The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

Still, Larson did his usual excellent job.

And of course, since I live in New York City, I am fascinated by NY City history.

Larson covers the last voyage of the Lusitania from the beginning.

He starts with the preparation of the ship for launch from Pier 54 at Little West 12th Street and the Hudson River (it's now used for concerts). The West Side Highway now adjacent to Pier 54 didn't yet exist in 1915, the year the Lusitania went down.

It's fascinating and the reader feels like he or she is right there with the passengers as they board with their huge and unwieldy trunks and their elaborate travelling outfits.

The German government placed a warning advertisement in fifty U.S. newspapers in April, warning that Germany was at war with Britain and that the safety of those travelling on trans-Atlantic crossings could not be guaranteed.

However, no one took the German warnings entirely seriously. First of all, the previous rules of engagement had dictated that ships carrying civilians could not be attacked. Also, Cunard, the owner of the Lusitania, stood to lose a lot of money if it cancelled its trans-Atlantic voyages.

Tragically, there were more children and babies on this voyage than usual.

Also, in an ironic twist of fate, another ship, the SS Cameronia, which was supposed to embark at around the same time as the Lusitania, was commandeered by the British Navy for its war effort, so its 41 passengers were transferred to the Lusitania at the last minute.

The ship launched (a bit late for various reasons) on May 1, 1915.

Larson details the trans-Atlantic voyage, which was largely pleasant and uneventful until the fateful day of May 7, 1915,

The ship was headed for Liverpool, England.

Its captain, William Thomas Turner, was a capable and experienced sea captain.

Larson also reconstructs the viewpoint of the Captain of the German U-boat, U-20, that sunk the Lusitania on May 7. This man, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, was a talented and dedicated captain, intent on sinking neutral or enemy ships, as this was his job. He was also, apparently, a good man. He was heartsick when he realized that women and children died in droves when the Lusitania sank.

U-20 hit the Lusitania with a single torpedo on May 7 a little after 2 pm a few miles off the Irish coast. The ship sunk in about twenty minutes. There was also a second explosion onboard, presumably caused by steam pipes on the ship.

More than a thousand lives were lost.

Several famous people died in the wreck, including Alfred Vanderbilt, who reportedly gave his life jacket to a mother with a child, even though he couldn't swim; writer Elbert Hubbard, known for A Message to Garcia; and theatrical producer Charles Frohman.

Larson follows the stories of several lesser known passengers, some who survived, others who didn't. For example, he follows Richard "Preston" Pritchard, a handsome and popular medical student who apparently died in the sinking. Connecticut resident Theodate Pope survived. She was one of the first female architects in America. She was also involved in spiritualism and possibly in theosophy. Her companion on the voyage, Edwin Friend, was lost at sea.

The Lusitania was sunk at a time of greater faith. I was amazed how many facing death were sustained by their spiritual faith and were able to be calm while dealing with disaster. Many survivors reported mystical experiences while waiting to be rescued.

However, in other ways, things haven't changed much since 1915.

I found it interesting that the authorities (in particular Winston Churchill) tried to pin the blame for the sinking on Captain Turner. However, there was an inquest in which
Turner was exonerated.

I don't think that brave man, who did survive, was in any way responsible. He stayed with the ship until its last moments.

Here are some telling facts:

The Lusitania's speed was limited to less than the 25 knots per hour of which she was capable because Cunard Lines required Captain Turner to cut costs by using only three of Lusitania's four smoke stacks. If the ship was running at top speed, perhaps she could have outrun the U-boat.

Although the British knew that U-20 was quite close to the Lusitania, they never warned the ship because they were concerned about revealing their secret operations for decoding the German's encoded messages.

By the time the Lusitania received a message about U-20 it was too late.

Although the Lusitania had been promised British warships to escort it, those warships never showed up. The Brits had already lost some warships to an earlier torpedoing, and apparently they didn't want to risk losing any more battle ships.

The designers of the collapsible boats did not test them to make sure they were easily deployed in an emergency. Apparently the boats were not well designed. Captain Turner did conduct at least one drill with the crew for deploying the boats, but Cunard did not focus on passenger safety in the event of an emergency.

No one believed that the Germans would actually sink a passenger boat, as this went counter to previous rules of engagement.

One wonders whether the British government deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be destroyed to force America to enter World War I. As it happened, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson did in fact bring the U.S. into the war shortly after the destruction of the Lusitania.

In any case, Scott Brick is the ideal audio reader for this type of material. His expressive voice brings Larson's writing to life.

Update.. I heard Larson speak live

Update: I saw Erik Larson speak on February 2, 2016.. He was as engaging and interesting a speaker as he is a writer... But he was funnier and more charming in person.
Profile Image for Dem.
1,186 reviews1,098 followers
August 7, 2017

"The Devil is in the detail" and Erik Larson's Dead wake : The last crossing of the Lusitania is certainly packed full of detail but details that for me made this book such a worthwhile read. Living in Ireland I thought I was informed through history classes in school of the events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania off the cost of Kinsale Head in Co. Cork however I was surprised by the information I gained by reading Dead Wake. Published to coincide with the 100th Anniversary in May of this great Maritime tragedy I think this book will inform a whole new generation about a tragedy about an important event in History.

The book is extremely well researched and supported by extensive references and notes. I read this book on my kindle and was delighted to see that by clicking on a number I was taking to a link providing me with the source of a fact, statement or piece of information.

I enjoyed reading about the luxury of the ship as opposed to the dreadful conditions of the Submarine and felt I really got a feel for how difficult life on board a sub could be in times of war. There is an air of suspense throughout the book even though we know the outcome the author manages to hold our attention and keep us engrossed. We also learn a little about the passengers on board the Lusitania but I never got emotionally attached to the characters and this worked well as the book was about facts and events and providing the reader with enough information to form an opinion as to how a ship like the Lusitania ended its voyage in such tragic circumstances.

This is a book for readers who have an interest in books about war and events in history. It's well written and researched and I came away feeling I had learned something new. I will certainly check out some more reads by this author as this was an engrossing and informative read.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews33 followers
February 23, 2016
This is an all-embracing historical heartbreak story....a tragedy that could have been
avoided. The seas were a war zone ..

Right from the start, we learn that their were delays leaving New York...( America was not yet at war yet in May, 1915, against Germany).
Red flag warnings were everywhere. They were suppose to run the ship on 4 engines, but got by with 3.
The German government warned Americans that traveling on trans-Atlantic wasn't safe.
Other safety conditions like respect for fog were ignored.
Nobody was taking warning signs serious....let alone be preventive- in - the areas of 'all' safety, to the level we would expect.
It's painful to see ( now, in hindsight), all the many corrections that would have saved thousands of lives. (more babies onboard than usual, too)!
This non-fiction book reads like fiction!!!! I WISH IT WAS! Unfortunately ...these are true events.
All the events leading up to the ships final crossing was energizing. I found it absolutely fascinating reading the details about the ship - the submarine - William Thomas Turner, ( his professional growth to well respected and qualified Captain of the Lusitania), and his personal life at home.

It was especially fascinating hearing from the people who survived..... and sad to learn which characters didn't.

Eric Larrson's detail descriptions were extraordinary!!! - the ship- the crew- the submarine- the passengers- ...the suspense in which the story unfolded...

Mostly I'm left with sadness at how many opportunities were missed... making this
tale all the more tragic!!!!

*This story is powerful as "The Devil in the White City"....( both stories will be hard to ever forget)
I also enjoyed "In the Garden of Beasts"....(3 for 3)... I guess I'm a fan of this author...
and I didn't even know it! How'd that happen? lol
Talented authors ... gotta love em!!!

Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,459 reviews105 followers
March 24, 2022
Larson has really delivered on this book. I have read all of his works and his style appeals to me. In this book, the subject appeals to me as well since it gets less attention than the sinking of the Titanic but has much more historic significance.

Europe was caught up in the horror of WWI but the US was remaining isolated and neutral. The Lusitania, carrying 189 American passengers in her total count of 2,000 souls aboard, was the largest and fastest of the Cunard Line luxury ships and departed New York on May 1st, 1915 for Liverpool, England. She was in imminent danger of being attacked by U-boats off the coast of the UK but most chose not to give too much credence to that scenario as it was known to the Germans that Americans were aboard. On Friday, May 5th, the Lusitania was torpedoed off of the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland and sank like a stone. Only 764 passengers survived and over 600 bodies were never found. The Germans rejoiced while the rest of the world was horrified.

The author provides the reader with a plethora of information surrounding the week prior to the sinking and the after effect that it had on the US and Britain. He also attempts to answer the question as to why this incident did not bring the US into the War. I highly recommend this book.

Note: I have been to the Old Head of Kinsale in the Republic of Ireland and visited the monument which commemorates the sinking of the Lusitania. Impressive.
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books912 followers
September 30, 2019
Not enthralling for me personally, but otherwise excellently done. This is a supremely well-researched account of the life and times of the early 1900s, WWI, and, of course, the sinking of the Lusitania. Going in, my knowledge of the Lusitania was sadly little. Being educated in such a significant historic event is the clear benefit of this book. Unlike some historical accounts, however, the narrative struggles to captivate in any meaningful way outside of all the interesting facts. More textbook than creative nonfiction, in other words.

Might have been better if Larson focused closely on one "character" arc so we're grounded in the experience. Instead we get small snippets about multitudes, and a lot of talk about the mechanics of U-boats and ocean liners. If those type of things get you excited, you'll love this through and through. Otherwise it might be easier to watch a short documentary.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,738 reviews1,468 followers
March 25, 2015
Stuffed with details. Are there too many?

I continue.


I feel guilty giving this book only three stars, but that reflects my honest reaction. It is interesting. It is accurate. It is extensively researched. It is about an event, the torpedo sinking of the British steamship passenger liner, the Lusitania, in 1915 by a German submarine. The death toll came to 1,198 persons, including passengers, crew and 3 German stowaways. There were 1,962 on board. Only 764 survived. It is less about the people involved in the catastrophe, even if many details are given. The only person I came close to understanding was the captain of the Lusitania, Captain William Thomas Turner, but not the U Boat captain. He did not survive the war, as Turner did, so what we learn about him is predominantly through his logbooks, wireless messages and a few words from acquaintances, one being his fiancée. I can in no way say that Larson's research is lacking. If anything I would have preferred that he edited out some of all the details presented. I don't need to know a passenger's ticket number or that Mr. X wore a pink vest or the dimensions of a book brought on board. I believe Larson was trying to recreate the atmosphere on the boat, and he certainly did, but the details were excessive.

There are parts about President Wilson’s sorrow at his wife’s death and his subsequent love affair. I found this thread scarcely relevant and annoyingly told.

This book is written in such a manner as to increase suspense and excitement. The story follows several threads. As suspense mounts in a thread you switch to another. Over and over again, with increasing rapidity and shorter and shorter episodes. Like all the ads to you get at you near the end of a film on TV.

The second half of the book which describes the sinking is more engrossing. In this section there is also a discussion of blame. This too was fascinating. Who was most at fault? The captain because he didn't zigzag and didn't follow a course further from shore? Or did they simply need an easy scapegoat to divert suspicion? Or the British Admiralty? Why wasn’t the Lusitania given an escort? The Admiralty had thorough knowledge through secret decoding information. Or the Cunard Line? Should they be blamed? It was them that ordered Turner to only use three of the four boilers, thus lowering the liner's speed, making it more susceptible to submarine attack. Many passengers chose the Lusitania because of the boat’s speed. They were not informed that the speed had been lowered. Or was there a conspiracy plot to draw America into the war? Yes, the second half is much better than the first half. Maybe the book deserves four stars for the latter half. I liked the book but I didn't REALLY love it, so I stick with my three stars.

The audiobook is narrated by Scott Brick. Everybody loves this guy, but I don’t. The tempo is slow, exaggeratedly slow. Why does Brick do this? To increase suspense, to keep the listener hanging. This is not to my taste, but you may love it.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,730 reviews12.8k followers
September 16, 2020
Erik Larson offers up another of his dazzling pieces of nonfiction, taking the reader into the middle of an infamous event and hashing out some of the details that make it come alive. Larson's attention to detail and desire to share the nuances of the events that led to the Lusitania's sinking makes this a must-read book for all who have a passion for history of the time. The Lusitania was a well-known British passenger ship that had made the voyage across the Atlantic on numerous occasions. As Larson discusses in the early chapters, the Cunard Line held this ship in the highest esteem and advertised its prowess on the open waters. Countless people of importance had spent time in their berths and it was set to sail yet again, crossing from New York to Liverpool. After Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, questions arose as to what ought to be done about passenger ships traveling in the open waters, particularly when the German U-Boats emerged as a credible threat. Larson discusses the loose gentlemen's agreement that any ship (passenger or freight) that identified itself as part of a neutral country should be safe from attack. Even still, the Imperial German Embassy put out advertisements about how they could not guarantee safe passage, trying to protect passengers from risking their lives. Larson points out that this warning was placed directly under an advertisement for the Lusitania's return voyage from New York, which some felt was ominous. All the while, US President Woodrow Wilson was firmly keeping America out of the European war, in hopes that it would end quickly and he could get back to dealing with his allies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

When the day came for the Lusitania to sail again, May 1, 1915, a large contingent had purchased tickets for the voyage. It would seem that the veiled threat brought about by the Germans could not deter the most dedicated travellers. Additionally, the haunting of the Titanic's fate three years before did not stymie plans for many, though Larson does explain how these events did stir up some concern amongst the crew about this ship, including Captain William Thomas Turner. Larson not only lists some of the star-studded passengers, but also the lavish details of what they could expect onboard. Still, Cunard Line sought to impress their guests as much as possible with foods, accomodations, and a great deal of entertainment on board. While the Lusitania inched its way across the Atlantic, U-20, one of the deadly German submarines was trolling off the Irish Coast. Its commanding officer, Walther Schwieger was ruthless in his desire to cause as much havoc as possible. As Larson mentions, Schwieger took pleasure in sinking enemy vessels whenever and wherever possible. No ship was safe with the German U-boats out on the open waters, particularly when they could remain hidden within the fog and placid surface of the water. What was Wilson doing at this time, while war raged in Europe and the Germans were taking down ships? Why he was trying to get over the loss of his wife by wooing another woman, one Edith Bolling. Larson offers an interesting sub-plot of this most curious courting while danger slid through the waves and created an ominous veil.

By May 7th, the Lusitania had the Irish Coast in its sights, a happy event for the captain and many on board. The ship was almost done crossing and there had been nothing about which to worry. It was then that Schwieger prepared to strike. While the Lusitania had received numerous warnings across the wires about other ships being targeted, they forged onward, into U-20s sightlines. As Larson vividly describes, Schwieger took aim and shot a torpedo at the ship, striking it with enough force to cause immediate damage. From there, it was an immediate panic on board, as passengers and crew rushed to see what had happened and sought to commence evacuation. With life jackets dispensed and rafts used to ferry people to safety, the crew sized up what had happened, some choosing to downplay the damage. Reports on shore were somewhat misleading as many waited for additional information. People rushed to leave, though the damage was extensive, leaving the waters peppered with bodies, both the living and the dead. Larson offers intense details of matters at this point, putting the reader in the middle of events, as lives hung in the balance. At final count, 1198 lives were lost and the German U-20 slunk away, happy with its cataclysmic attack. Reactions on both sides of the Atlantic were slow, though news was sketchy for the first while. Wilson was furious, though this was not the event that pushed America into the war, though it surely played a contributing factor. The closing part of the book alone is riveting, as Larson describes the chaos and aftermath, enough to send chills down the spine of the bravest reader. Larson proves that he is masterful in his writing and depiction of the events of May 1915. Highly recommended to those who love vivid storytelling that brings history to life, as well as the reader who seeks to better understand how this tragedy came about.

There is no doubt that the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania are filled with foreshadowing. Hindsight is sure to bring the skeptics out, though one cannot fault those who were sure safe passage would be promised to a passenger ship. Larson delivers a masterful narrative that layers all sides of the story together, offering insights extracted from his deep research. There is no doubt that the reality of this event is shown a new level of intensity through Erik Larson's words, leaving the reader to feel as though they, too, were aboard the ship. Larson's style presents things almost as though it were a piece of fiction, the vividness exceeding expectation with each turn of the page. Divided into five key parts, Larson delineates how things progressed and at what point the Lusitania slid into the almost 'on the fly' plan of U-20 and Commanding Officer Walther Schwieger. While it may seem macabre to admit this, but the detail of death and destruction were perhaps the best portions of the book, bringing home the sizeable losses suffered on that day, which helped to vilify the act all the more. Perhaps one of the best-told pieces of historical storytelling I have read, right up there with the other Erik Larson book I completed recently. Stunning seems too bland a word for me to use in this case.

Kudos, Mr. Larson, for yet another winner. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of your work, as you breathe life into the past's tales.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,656 followers
August 13, 2017
This is a fascinating book about the sinking of the Lusitania, the British ocean liner that was torpedoed by a German submarine in May 1915. Nearly 1,200 people died, including 128 Americans. I didn't know much about the Lusitania before I read this book, but I should have because it was one of the critical events that pushed America to enter World War I.

What Erik Larson does well is to put the Lusitania event in the context of history: the reader gets a good sense of what was happening in the war, and we understand why the attack on a civilian passenger ship was so shocking. There is also an interesting discussion on the role of the submarine, which was a relatively new kind of boat.

Additionally, Larson gets into the historical What Ifs. What if the Lusitania hadn't been delayed when it launched? What if the British had sent a destroyer to escort the ship through waters that were known to contain German U-boats? What if it had been foggier that day? What if the torpedo had failed, which was a common problem? And most importantly, what if British officials deliberately let the Lusitania be vulnerable to attack, in the hopes it would push America into the war?

The first half of this book sets up the events that conspired to put the Lusitania in harm's way, and the second half is a tick-tock of the day of the attack. We see things from the perspective of both the U-boat crew and from the British captain, and Larson also writes about what the Lusitania passengers were doing at the time. While reading, I was struck by the amount of research Larson compiled here in an almost effortless fashion. His narrative is strong and compelling.

My only quibble with this book is Larson spends too much time on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's love life; his wife had died in 1914, and he eventually falls in love and marries another woman. Some of the Wilson scenes went on too long and made me anxious to get back to the Lusitania story.

But overall, I enjoyed learning more about the Lusitania, and this book fit nicely into my ongoing reading about World War I. Highly recommended for history readers.
Profile Image for Carol.
1,370 reviews2,138 followers
November 5, 2015
Informative: My first Erik Larson novel turned out to be quite the educational experience beginning with the significance of the title DEAD WAKE.....the disturbance (or track) a torpedo leaves behind on the water in route to its destination....and, I also now know that of the Lusitania's 1,959 passengers and crew on board May 7, 1915, (nearly 100 years ago) only 764 survived...600 were never found and 123 American's were among the dead. (three German stowaways also perished)

Interesting: Larson's work of non-fiction captures the day-to-day activities of various passengers as well as the Lusitania's competent and brave Captain William Thomas Turner and the aggressive, villaneous German predator of the U-20 submarine, Captain Walther Schwieger who repeatedly targeted innocent passenger liners and merchant ships to destruction.

Maddening: As you will see, there were many variables that could have changed history and averted this horrific disaster..... I was also left with a rather disappointing opinion of President Wilson

While an extremely enlightening and educational read in many respects, I did not feel much of a connection to the characters or the distress and panic of the moment....there was almost a calmness in the telling. Anyway, still a GREAT historical read that I would highly recommend! 4.5 Stars

Profile Image for Carol.
829 reviews483 followers
February 24, 2015

The Hook - Many years ago I read A Night to Remember by Walter Lord about the tragic sinking of the unsinkable Titanic. After this I’m certain I read a book about the Lusitania though for the life of me I can’t remember if it was fiction or not. When I heard that one of my favorite authors, Eric Larson was going to cover this subject in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania I was in. My sincere thanks to the publisher, Crown, for trusting me with an e-galley of the pre-published work.

The Line – One passenger, Dorothy Conner, bored with the monotony of ship life made this remark during a meal in the first-class dining room.

”I can’t help hoping that we get some sort of thrill going up the Channel.”

This seems an awful example of “be careful what you wish for”.

The Sinker – There is so much detail in Dead Wake that it was hard to decide what to cover in this review. I found myself underlining passage after passage of fascinating facts and passenger memories. I won’t quote many here as I’m hoping you’ll decide to read the book.

I knew some things about the ill-fated Lusitania but learned a great deal more in my reading of Dead Wake. His style is smooth, thoughts and ideas easily flowing from page to page, never boring me. The Lusitania, like the Titanic, was unsinkable and yet it did. Larson gives us just enough explanation of the ship and events that led to this incident that by book’s end I could hold my own in a conversation on the subject. I never felt I was being taught a history lesson.

He sets the scene well in the opening pages with descriptions of the ship allowing the reader to see it in all its magnificence and gives one the feeling of being a part of the voyage. He often quotes references to its distinctive four tunnels that would allow no mistaking it with other ships.


”From the first the ship became an object of national pride and affection. In keeping with Cunard’s custom of naming its ships for ancient lands, the company selected Lusitania, after a Roman province on the Iberian peninsulas that occupied roughly the same ground as modern-day Portugal. “The inhabitants were war-like, and the Romans conquered them with great difficulty,” states a memorandum in Cunard’s files on the naming of the ship. “They lived generally upon plunder and were rude and unpolished in their manners.” In popular usage, the name was foreshortened to “Lucy”.

There was nothing rude or unpolished about the ship itself. As the Lusitania departed Liverpool on its first transatlantic run in 1907, some one hundred-thousand spectators gathered at various points along the Mersey (pronounced Merzey) River to watch, many singing “Rule Britannia!” and waving handkerchiefs. Passenger C.R. Minnitt, in a letter he wrote aboard ship, told his wife how he climbed to the highest deck and stood near one of the ship’s four towering funnels to best capture the moment. “You do not get any idea of her size till you get right on top and then it is like being on Lincoln Cathedral,” Minnitt wrote. “I went over parts of the 1st class and it is really impossible to describe, it is so beautiful.”

”You could see the shape of the four funnels,” said the captain Thomas M. Taylor; “she was the only ship with four funnels.”

From those first pages of this 1917 sailing of a grand ship to the very last of the actual torpedo that tragically hit its mark leaving 1,195 dead and 764 surviving, this is narrative non-fiction at its best. A minor criticism is that I wish Larson had included a list of websites separate from their inclusion in his notes.

Profile Image for Murray.
Author 151 books492 followers
February 5, 2023
Terrorism 1915

🚢 It’s one thing, as a U-boat captain, to fire a torpedo at an enemy warship.

💀 It’s quite another to target a passenger ship that has no guns, no military on board, no protection, and no means of defense, fire a torpedo, kill children and infants, kill pregnant women, watch them drown and die, call it a heroic act of war … then celebrate it as such, message the news to your home country, and apparently give them a good reason to accelerate the celebration, and dance in the streets.

🚢 This book is not about an act of war. It’s about terrorism, Great War style.

💀 Captain von Trapp called it like it was. Yes, the very von Trapp played by Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music. (You’ll recall he was a naval officer.) After torpedoing a ship in WW1, he remarked that this type of war of stealth against defenseless ships amounted to nothing more or less than cowardice and murder. [and yes all sides utilized submarine warfare]

🚢 U-20’s captain, Schweiger, according to his wife and mother, was greatly distressed at his sinking of the Lusitania. So distressed he carried on sinking all kinds of shipping, not just warships, until he and his crew were killed in his U-boat in 1917.

🚢 A lot of blame lies with the Royal Navy for failure to protect the Lusitania when they knew it was in harm’s way or to give it important intel that would have changed the outcome. Blame also lies with Winston Churchill, who is beneath contempt for blaming the Lusitania’s captain over and over again, when he knew very well it was the Navy that had failed that passenger ship, including Churchill, not its stalwart captain.

🚢 America should have swallowed the whiskey and declared war over the Lusitania. Waiting two more years did not save lives but cost lives, including American lives.

🚢 A great deal of terror was to come in the years and decades ahead. In WW2, which some scholars claim was no more than an appendage of WW1, civilians were deliberately targeted and destroyed in the Blitz, the bombing of Dresden, the Rape of Nanking, and the slaughterhouse of Ukraine and western Russia. I was astonished to find a religious acquaintance honoring Franco the other day - Franco, who had his own citizens, not soldiers, firebombed by German aircraft at Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

🚢 I see no honor or heroism in U-boat crews that massacred passenger ships so I offer none.

🚢 The book is well-written and important. It is a disaster epic like the Titanic epic. The difference is that, apart from the hubris and errors people made, the Titanic’s killer, and the killer of its passengers and crew, was an iceberg that possessed no life or intelligence.

💀 The Lusitania’s killer, on the other hand, was human. He possessed both. And still acted.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 36 books11.3k followers
February 7, 2017
Wrenching and riveting. I'm a big fan of Erik Larson, and he is seriously on top of his game with "Dead Wake." His analysis of all the elements that had to conspire for the ship to sink is at once poignant and smart.
Profile Image for Kelli.
851 reviews395 followers
July 7, 2016
Everybody loved this but me! I'm flashing back to The Martian. I found this extremely boring and painful. A tragic story and very well-researched, but this one did what no other book before it has done...it actually put me to sleep. I fell asleep while reading. Enough said. Zzzzzz. 2 stars.
Profile Image for Jason.
33 reviews62 followers
September 11, 2017
Book 1 for 2016.

Erik Larson strikes again only this time with the speed and grace of a scythe. Tackling a not that well-known maritime incident, he takes us right into the cauldron of this major event of both United States and World History albeit looking at it from a myriad of different viewpoints in a sort of Rashomon-type retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania, the impetus for America's belated entry into the Great War.

Taking place just three years after that other "night to remember" when yet another great liner sunk quickly below the waves, our story begins in the last days of April, 1915 at the outset of what would turn out to be the 201st (and final) transatlantic crossing of the Cunard liner Lusitania. Setting the scene of actual world events as the ship leaves New York harbor, Larson delves deep into the complex back stories of not only the ship's captain but the German submarine commander who would ultimately end up being the person responsible for firing the torpedo that inflicted the fatal blow to the ship itself. Various passengers aboard the Lusitania are described (some at great lengths) and even the relationships of world leaders such as a very young Winston Churchill and United States President Woodrow Wilson are studied in depth as to their roles within the greater story itself.

At times somewhat disjointed, the story itself is told at a brisk enough pace to keep the reader interested and the pages turning at a fast clip. Most chapters are three to four pages in length. Unlike the Titanic disaster, with the Lusitania my interest was never quite piqued enough to actually care/have feelings for the passengers and crew of the ship. Thus my reason for not a full five star rating. I went away certainly feeling bad for what they had to go through, but my heartstrings were not as pulled as much as when certain EdwardIan era individuals suddenly find themselves adjusting to the fact that life itself may be over and they may very well find themselves trying to stay both alive and afloat in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Here the time from impact to sinking was a mere eighteen minutes. The Titanic's death rattles went on for a little over two hours.

However, I found the exposition on the lead up and background to World War One and the detailed description of the German submarine leadership and it's role/part in the war absolutely fascinating. In conclusion, I strongly believe that this will be the book that will be the definitive one on this tragedy for years to come. Very well done Mr. Larson.

Profile Image for FotisK.
356 reviews158 followers
November 18, 2020
Διαβάζεται ευχάριστα, έχει ένταση και ρυθμό. Η έρευνα φαίνεται εμπεριστατωμένη και προσφέρει το γενικό πλαίσιο, χωρίς να πλατειάζει αχρείαστα. Ταυτόχρονα, η κάμερα εστιάζει στα επιμέρους ατομικά πεπρωμένα, στις ιστορίες των επιβατών του Λουζιτάνια, αλλά και σε εκείνες του υποβρυχίου που το βύθισε.
Η βαθμολογία μου θα ήταν μεγαλύτερη αν δεν είχα συνεχώς την αίσθηση ότι ο συγγραφέας σε πολλά σημεία έγραφε ως σεναριογράφος, με απώτερο στόχο την κινηματογραφική μεταφορά του βιβλίου: υπάρχουν έτοιμες σεκάνς, ιδίως προς το τέλος όπου η ένταση κορυφώνεται (συνεχείς εναλλαγές σε πρόσωπα, κοντινά πλάνα, γρήγορο μοντάζ).
Τώρα θα αναρωτηθεί κάποιος γιατί να είναι κακό αυτό. Δεν έχω και καμιά εντυπωσιακή απάντηση να δώσω, πλην εκείνης που αναμένεται από έναν ιδιότροπο αναγνώστη.
Profile Image for Zaphirenia.
279 reviews190 followers
July 22, 2018
Η ιστορία του πώς βυθίστηκε το καμάρι της ναυτικής υπεροχής της Αγγλίας από το γερμανικό υποβρύχιo U-20 του Βάλτερ Σβίγκερ το Μάιο του 1915, τρία χρόνια μετά το ναυάγιο του Τιτανικού. Σε μια περίοδο που - παρά την επίσημη ανακοίνωση-προειδοποίηση που εξέδωσε ο ίδιος ο Κάιζερ - κανείς δεν πίστευε ότι η Γερμανία θα έπεφτε τόσο χαμηλά ώστε να βυθίσει εμπορικά πλοία με επιβάτες, τα γερμανικά υποβρύχια που περιπολούν στην εμπόλεμη ζώνη αρχίζουν να τορπιλίζουν πλοία αδιακρίτως και χωρίς προειδοποίηση για την ασφαλή απομάκρυνση των πολιτών. Οι κανόνες του παιχνιδιού έχουν αλλάξει ανεπιστρεπτί - μόνο που αυτό δεν έχει γίνει ακόμα αντιληπτό από τους Συμμάχους και τα ουδέτερα κράτη.

Στις 30 Απριλίου αποπλέει από τη Νέα Υόρκη το Λουζιτάνια, στολίδι του αγγλικού ναυτικού εμπορικού στόλου, με κατεύθυνση το Λίβερπουλ. Κατά την αναχώρηση, οι επιβάτες είναι χαρούμενοι και ήσυχοι. Τίποτα δε θα συμβεί, με την είσοδο του Λουζιτάνια στην εμπόλεμη ζώνη θα συνοδευτεί από το πολεμικό Ναυτικό και θα προσεγγίσει το λιμάνι με ασφάλεια. Άλλωστε αυτό είναι το πιο γρήγορο ατμόπλοιο της εποχής του, πολύ πιο γρήγορο από τα ούτως ή άλλως βραδυκίνητα γερμανικά υποβρύχια. Αποκλείεται να το προλάβει ένα υποβρύχιο ακόμη και εάν το εντοπίσει. Στο πλοίο επιβαίνουν περίπου 2.000 άτομα, συμπεριλαμβανομένου ενός ασυνήθιστα μεγάλου αριθμού παιδιών και βρεφών. 123 από τους επιβαίνοντες είναι Αμερικανοί πολίτες.

Μια σειρά από γεγονότα συγκλίνουν την πορεία του Λουζιτάνια με αυτή του γερμανικού υποβρυχίου και οδηγούν στη βύθιση του πρ��του από το δεύτερο. Ο Λάρσον ερευνά και ασχολείται με όλα τα καίρια ζητήματα: πώς βυθίστηκε το μεγαλύτερο και ταχύτερο εμπορικό πλοίο της εποχής του; Γιατί κανείς δεν ενημέρωσε τον πλοίαρχο Τέρνερ ότι μετά τον απόπλου του Λουζιτάνια είχαν τορπιλιστεί ήδη άλλα δύο επιβατηγά πλοία και γιατί δεν του δόθηκαν οδηγίες για να αλλάξει την πορεία του πλοίου; Ήταν όλα μια άτυχη στιγμή, μια σειρά κακών χειρισμών ή μια τραγωδία που εσκεμμένα δεν αποφεύχθηκε με απώτατο στόχο την εμπλοκή των ΗΠΑ στον πόλεμο;

Ένα πολύ ωραίο βιβλίο. Ο συγγραφέας πιάνει το νήμα των γεγονότων που συνδέονται με το ταξίδι του Λουζιτάνια καθώς και την πορεία του U-20 πριν και κατά τη διάρκεια της βύθισης του πλοίου από τις μαρτυρίες και τα στοιχεία που έχουν δημοσιευθεί και περιγράφει καρέ-καρέ τις σκηνές ενός πραγματικού δράματος, μιας αληθινής τραγωδίας. Μιας τραγωδίας που συνέβη ακριβώς γιατί όλα έγιναν ακριβώς έτσι όπως έγιναν και αν έστω και ένα μικρό γεγονός είχε αλλάξει, ίσως το πλοίο να είχε τελικά προσαράξει στο Λίβερπουλ.
Profile Image for Tim.
135 reviews57 followers
August 26, 2021
This is a really intense book that I gobbled up quickly. It alternates between the perspective of the Lusitania passengers and crew and the German submarine occupants. The story of the Lusitania starts a couple days before it’s departure from New York, and you will learn the backstories of some of the passengers and crew. The story of the German submarine begins with its departure from Germany, and you will learn a little about what life was like on a submarine (it was really gross). The book also provides a crash course on various boats and warships that I thought was interesting and useful.

The tension builds as the two crafts wind through their paths. As with all good history books, you get an appreciation for the mistakes and weird random events that happened. Events that could have quite easily happened differently; and if they did, would have had profound impacts. For instance, Britain knew that the Lusitania was entering a danger zone and could have told the Captain to alter its path to a safer route. But they didn’t.

The story of the aftermath of the Lusitania sinking was also interesting, though this was a pretty small part of the book. I wasn’t aware that the US did not declare war until 2 years after the sinking of the Lusitania, so it wasn’t as much of a proximate cause for US involvement as I thought.
Profile Image for Char.
1,638 reviews1,488 followers
July 20, 2015
Unlike this author's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, which I LOVED, I found that this volume went on a little too long for my tastes. I enjoyed the parts about the various passengers and the actual sinking the best. I got a bit bogged down in the submarine and political parts, even though those portions shed some light on how such a thing could occur. I'm glad I read it, but I don't see it ever being a candidate for a re-read.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
May 22, 2016
I've kind of missed the boat so far (har harrrr, oh come on, I couldn't resist) but this is the first book I've read by Erik Larson. And I only ended up reading it because it is the final pick of the season for my in-person book club. I put it off for a while but ended up breezing through, using the approach I take with most histories - read the bits carefully that I'm interested in and skim those I am not.

Those I am not:
-transcripts of military commands
-Woodrow Wilson's depression and dating life (if this were the focus of a novel, I'd probably be really into it, but since his actions and emotions have absolutely zero to do with what happens on or to the Lusitania, I don't know what the author was thinking.... if this was a World War I book, it might make more sense... but like Bryan A. says in his review, this is a book about a ship and its demise, a la Titanic)

Those I am:
-quotes and summaries of individual narratives the author found during his research. I wanted more of this. He had access to amazing materials and sometimes used only a part of a sentence. I will never see the Sound of Music the same, having read Captain von Trapp's views of killing people in war (and of course, he was on the other side! So long, hero.)
-Stories of the people on the ship and all those fun happenstances... Alfred Vanderbilt not going on the Titanic despite having a ticket, and then dying on the Lusitania (by the way, the Vanderbilt Estate in Asheville, NC had an interesting exhibit about the Vanderbilts and the Titanic yet I do not remember them mentioning this key detail!) - this is one example of many, and as far as this book is almost like a gossip mag, these bits were the juiciest.

Outside of the research, the writing has some great moments, where I can picture Larson typing a sentence and feeling proud of it. For me, this can be sustaining as a reader who more often reads fiction. The only one I marked is "When he came back to the surface, he found himself in an archipelago of destruction and death."

This is likely going to be a good discussion in my book club, so I may have more to say at that point.
Profile Image for Bill.
289 reviews92 followers
February 20, 2018

This book is a dry history lesson ... BORING! I trusted but did not verify the extraordinarily high GR ratings for this book, assuming such high ratings were indicative of a captivating, perhaps historically fictional look at this tragic oceanic event. Nope … straight history. Why such high ratings? What am I missing?

I must be on a different wavelength (a different planet perhaps???) … folks rave about The Martian by Andy Weir and I thought it was a snooze-fest. Readers pile the praise on Dead Wake but I struggle to finish it. What’s up?

These numbers are impressive!

 photo Dead wake ratings_zpsqhbriafr.png

The year is 1915. World War I has lasted much longer than expected and the German government has warned of its submarine activity and threat to merchant and neutral vessels around Great Britain.

Great Britain has broken the SKM codes used in all German wireless communications to submarine commanders but keeps the knowledge of German activity secret for fear of tipping off the Germans. Government officials know German sub U20, commanded by Walther Schwieger, has entered British waters the same day the Lusitania prepares to set sail from New York to Liverpool.

The British government is anxious and to a certain degree desperate to pull the neutral United States into WW1. The British intelligence service and government leaders withhold knowledge of the heightened German submarine activity in British waters in the secret hopes that an American vessel will be attacked by Germany, forcing the United States to declare war.

Although Lusitania Captain William Thomas Turner receives no direct warnings of eminent danger from the British government until the ship enters the Irish Sea, the Lusitania is considered a transatlantic greyhound, a new class of marine vessel easily able to out run any submarine. The commonly held belief is, despite the danger of submarine attack, the Lusitania would be safe.

Special circumstances, errors in judgement, cost cutting by Lusitania operator Cunard Lines and communication disorder result in the sinking of the Lusitania eleven miles off the coast of Ireland, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew and the USA joined WW1 two years later.

There you have it ... a 430 page book summarized in five tight paragraphs!

The author made a valiant attempt to bring more color to story with personal accounts of some of the passengers on the ship but the exploration was not very satisfying and no new ground was investigated.

In the end my expectations were so much higher than the reality of this read. In my view, if you want to learn more about the ill-fated last crossing of the Lusitania, read the Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lus... and save yourself a lot of time and effort.
Profile Image for Libby.
583 reviews157 followers
January 30, 2016
"Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson taught me more about history than a myriad of dry dusty statistics or memorizing dates and events. I got to meet crew and passengers of the Lusitania and figures that for me, only live in history books. I didn't remember who was president when America entered WW1, but this book brought Woodrow Wilson to life. As it did Winston Churchill. But most vivid was the ship's Commander, William Thomas Turner. And many of the passengers. The endless cast of characters made it a little difficult for me in the beginning as I was trying to get them all straight. I was a third of the way into the book before I felt fully committed to the story. Once committed however, I began to be riveted by what I knew was going to happen.
Profile Image for Janis.
922 reviews
November 21, 2014
I couldn’t put down Dead Wake, Larson’s gripping narrative of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. The story shifts from aboard the great ship to the U-boat that would destroy it, to London’s admiralty offices and Wilson’s White House – providing details political and personal while the tension builds. It’s a fascinating account of this tragic event. I read an advance copy; pub date is in March 2015.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 12,917 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.