by Erik Larson
Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
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.
I had basic knowledge of the Lusitania disaster, but this book gave me a much better understanding of the times and the circumstances, as well as clarifying some of the details that I had misconstrued. For some reason, I was under the impression that the sinking of the Lusitania immediately pulled the hesitant US into WW I. Actually, it was more like two years. That pretty much characterizes what I knew about World War I, which, quite frankly, wasn’t much. That was one of the reasons I was looking forward to reading this book. It was full of historical details, yet it was not dry and boring. Mr. Larson made it come alive with real people from all sides of the story. For a non-fiction book, it was amazingly engaging.
Book Club Discussion:
This is the third book by Erik Larson that our book club has read and discussed together. We never fail to be amazed by his ability to integrate the historical details into a well told story with significant information about the very real people who lived through it.
As with his other books, we were all impressed with the depth of the author’s research and attention to historical details. Most felt that the book started off slowly, but we all appreciated how masterfully he introduced the passengers and how he included so many critical details that most of us had not been previously aware of. Some of those details about the actual people was sometimes a lot to take in, and, on more than one occasion, brought us to tears.
One member commented on the organization of the book, with one chapter about what was happening on the passenger liner and the alternate chapter about what was happening on the submarine. It was extremely interesting to get the view from both sides, and it was absolutely fascinating to find out so much detail about life on those submarines.
One member noted that the author spent a lot of time on President Wilson’s love relationship. That opened up a discussion about his actions (or inactions) during this time period. President Wilson did not fare well in our discussion, and we all agreed that we came away thinking less of him. But what really shocked all of us was how much the English knew of the dangers to the Lusitania and how little they did to intervene at any point – including the rescue. Clearly they were intent on pushing America into the war. That led to a deep discussion on the impact that might have had on ending the war earlier and reducing the terrible loss of life.
All in all, a highly informative read. One member noted that this outstanding synthesis of the the author’s tremendous amount of research makes the price of the book an absolute bargain!
*The paperback version has a Readers Guide, a conversation with the the author, and an essay from the author about writing.
Book Club Rating: 4+/5 Stars
Book Club Menu
An Assortment of Tea Sandwiches
Cranberry Chicken Salad Sandwiches
Carrot Cake Tea Sandwiches
Black Forest Ham and Cheese Spirals
Nut Bread and Cream Cheese Sandwiches
Cheese and Onion Canapés
Irish Current Scones
Strawberry Preserves, Clotted Cream and Lemon Curd
Lemon And Gingerbread
Served with Assorted Murchie’s Teas