Review by: Mark Palm
This is the first time I have reviewed a book by Erik Larson, although I have read three of his earlier works. Each time what happened to me is the exact opposite of what happens to Charlie Brown when he gets ready to kick a football held by Lucy. I am aware that this might be the single most bizarre analogy that I have ever used, but let me explain. Each of his previous books had been, quite rightly, highly praised, but on hearing what the books were about I thought, “this can’t be too interesting.” Each time I was wrong, and ended up being pleasantly surprised. Even after all these times when I got ready to read Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of The Lusitania, I was thinking that I had heard this story before. Once again, I was wrong. Dead Wake, is an absorbing, fascinating book, made so by the passion, knowledge, and skill of Mr. Larson.
As a history buff I thought that I pretty much knew the story of the Lusitania. In May of 1915, nearly a year after the start of World War I, the luxury liner left New York City bound for Liverpool. Even though Germany had declared the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone, the ship’s Captain, William Thomas Turner was confident that the ship’s size and speed would keep her safe, along with his faith that no “civilized” country would sink a civilian ship. I don’t think that I am giving away any spoilers by saying that he was wrong.
That is the story that I know, and that is where Mr. Larson steps in. He gives us the stories behind the story, and does it with style and intelligence. Maybe more, he does it with such enthusiasm and interest that I ended up wondering what would happen next even though I knew the basic outcome of the story.
What makes Dead Wake stand out, however, is the characters. Mr. Larson gives us the lives behind the story, of people great and small, famous and obscure, on all sides. President Woodrow Wilson plays an important role in this book, but I found the stories of the passengers and crew of both of these ships, destined to create history through a collusion of random events both small and large, far more interesting than his personal trials.
All in all, Dead Wake is a fascinating, emotional tale, told with care and an attention to detail that brings fresh life to a story that I thought that I knew, but realized I had ended up flipped onto my backside by surprise.