Monday, June 8, 2015

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

Summary:  From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

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. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.  (Summary and image from

My Review: Nonfiction books have a reputation.  They're wonderful, as a whole, but don't you find them rather dry?  I've found myself plodding through some books, not because the subject is dull, but because the book itself is written like a college report.  There's so very little life to the words on the page that they seem as dusty and antiquated as items from the actual event being related.

Erik Larson doesn't have that problem.  If an author can so vividly describe a scene with so much vitality and life that I not once, but repeatedly, call my husband to see if we could go to the event (which ended years ago), I call that talent.  (I may or may not have asked my husband on multiple occasions to take me to the Chicago World's Fair.)  I also excitedly await new books.  This one certainly lived up to my expectation.

I am a reader, my husband is not.  He tolerates my reading, and sometimes, even lets me pull him along in a story.  The poor man is also claustrophobic, and this book is full of submarine life.   I was fascinated.  I was so caught up I kept reading him passages, only to glance up and see him turning a little green with the thought of  experiencing German Submarine Life.  I feel kind of bad, but at the same time, what amazing talent!

The sinking of the Lusitania is tragic and terrible and fascinating and influenced so much more than I had realized.  Larson's research is impeccable, his delivery so engaging that it's impossible to put the book down.  His ability to breathe life into history is so incredible, even nonreaders or non-fiction antireaders (Is that a thing?  People who just won't read nonfic? It seems like it would be a thing.) will find themselves swept away in the story - the lives, the tragedies. and the humor is all so wonderfully encapsulated.

If you find yourself wanting to venture into nonfiction and are intimidated, or if you're already a fan of the genre, this is definitely a must read.

My Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Claustrophobia-inducing passages, absolute tragic deaths of children, women, and men who were either unable or thrown from lifeboats (not deliberately, but many of the lifeboats were unable to be launched properly, upending and dumping the passengers into the sea), talk of decomposing bodies, and massive loss of life.

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