Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake by Erik Larson Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Narrator: Scott Brick
Published by Random House Audio on March 10, 2015
Source: Purchased
Genres: History, Non-fiction
Length: 13 hrs 4 mins
Format: Audiobook
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four-stars

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.

Dead Wake is not a book I would usually pick up. I don’t tend to read much non-fiction and I actively avoid war books, but I’ve enjoyed Larson’s books in the past and his “narrative non-fiction” style works for me. He tells the story with a personal touch, not just a recitation of facts. This one is pretty fascinating, the boat itself, the people on board, and all the events in the outer world that conspired against them.

I listened to this one on audio and Brick did a good job. He kept me interested, made it exciting and tension-filled. There were a lot of people, but it’s non-fiction, so there wasn’t really any dialogue to worry about. The individuals were heard through their journals and letter, which doesn’t require any distinction voices.

There are a lot of people involved in the story of the Lusitania, from the captain, crew and passengers, government officials on both sides of the Atlantic,  to the German U-boat commander. Larson makes each of them feel real.

I was surprised by how much could have been done to avoid the tragedy. It felt like Britain wanted it, or something similar, to happen, to get the US into the war. I didn’t really get attached to any of the characters, but the stories are touching, sad, inspiring. Honestly, I think my big take away is how effective the U-boats could be.

I don’t know why I tend to veer away from history books. I enjoy them when I read them. Granted some can be boring, but so can some fiction.

Any non-fiction books you would recommend I read?

5 Comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed all of Larson’s books that I’ve read, but I don’t think my review of Dead Wake did it justice. I really did like it! You might want to try The Turk by Tom Standage. Not as narrative as Larson, but pretty readable.

  2. Great review, Carol. I plan on listening to this soon. I find I’m enjoying nonfiction audio these days… some recent favorites include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Five Days at Memorial, Orange is the New Black, and Travels with Charley. For essays – This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. I went on a foodie listening binge a year or so ago and can also highly recommend Cooked by Michael Pollan, and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss (narrated by Scott Brick).

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