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Book Review

'Dead Wake' May Be Larson's Best Yet


If you’re travelling to Berlin, you’d do well to read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. Going to Chicago? Read his The Devil in the White City. However, if you’re going on a cruise, beware Larson’s latest-- and, I think, best-- book, Dead Wake. Larson combines impeccable research, fully drawn characters and social history to tell of a fateful journey when the rules of war became more dangerous for all people.

The Lusitania set sail from New York City, bound for Liverpool, England, on May 1, 1915. Captain William Turner had faith in the conscripted code of war, which spared civilian targets. His cruise liner was the fastest, most luxurious ship on the sea. His broad range of passengers included a Vanderbilt, a rare book salesman and crewmembers, about 2000 in all.

Ten months into World War One, Winston Churchill and his British admiralty were trying to control the forces at work on the seas. The German U-boats were ordered to torpedo everything in sight. Twenty-four vessels were sunk in seven days. And President Woodrow Wilson’s political position up to that point had been one of neutrality.

About halfway through the book we learn that “dead wake” is a term to describe the wake produced by a torpedo launched 10-15 feet below the surface of the ocean. Larson details the many inexplicable decisions and the incredible confluence of circumstances that made the Lusitania such a successful target of the torpedo. The ship sank in 10 minutes. Miraculously, almost half the passengers survived.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is a gripping and important achievement.