Book Review | Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead WakeSpoiler alert: The Lusitania sinks at the end and the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies.

Dead Wake is the first book by Erik Larson that I’ve read, though I know his books by reputation (especially Devil in the White City, which seems like it’s been read by almost everyone I know…). They’re historical, non-fiction, but written like thrillers. Per Larson’s foreword, everything he writes is factual, and quotes are all real, coming from documentation from the event. The result is history colored and enlivened by the flavors, smells, tastes and sounds of real people, and not just the kings, presidents, generals, and wealthy that seem to dominate the pages of history, but of the everyday people who populate the world of the event Larson is examining.

In this case, Dead Wake is the tale of the Lusitania, one of the fastest and largest ships of its day. In the age before airplanes carried passengers across the Atlantic, cruise ships like the Lusitania were the sole means of transit and commerce between Europe and the Americas. From berths in first class on down, the wealthy traveled with the plebs, divided by their accommodations and dining, but also sharing the same vessel. Larson describes the Lusitania as being so large that people could make friends with someone they meet and then never see that person again, if plans aren’t otherwise made to meet up again. In addition to luxurious dining rooms (and the menus feature sumptuous options even for those not benefiting from first class tickets), there are pools, baths, day care facilities, dancing, deck chairs for renting, and more. It is a floating city, or at least a small town, moving with speed and class across the Atlantic Ocean.

And yet, a threat hangs over this particular journey from New York to Great Britain. On the day the Lusitania prepares to leave port, Germany warns that it will begin sinking even passenger ships that may be helping the Allies. Submarine warfare is still in its infancy, though. U-boats can only stay submerged for short periods of time and cannot match the speed of large ships, including the Lusitania. Torpedoes do not track their prey, but can be fired in a straight line, and then, they may not even explode. If a ship’s look out can catch sight of the tell-tale signs of the U-boats periscope–a feathered wake that can be seen for miles–the captain can turn his ship towards the marauding U-boats and, if the U-boats cannot dive fast enough, ram the submarine with its much larger keel, breaching the U-boats’s more delicate shell and sinking it. Alternately, the larger ship can just turn away and, with speed superior to the U-boats, run for it.

What is perhaps most interesting about Larson’s style is his ability to interweave the stories of so many, based only on the documentary evidence available to him. From the romantic interludes of the recently widowed President Woodrow Wilson to the travails of a quarantined boy beset by measles, Larson kept me interested until the very last page. Early on, I assumed that the characters Larson would use for his story would be those who survived since they would have lived to give accounts of the trip. And yet, Larson manages to fill in the gaps and bring the last trip of the Lusitania to life. Is it a thriller? Maybe not quite, but it is a thrilling read, one that will keep almost any reader interested. If more history were written with the kind of attention to both detail and story telling that Larson uses in Dead Wake, I think more people would read history. I look forward to reading another of Larson’s books soon.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Book Cover Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers
March 10, 2015

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.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.


  1. mauijungalow says:

    from Hawaii. I discovered about 20 comments from the A to Z Challenge 2013 that
    were in my spam folder in Disqus. Yikes. This prompted me to review all of my
    comments and see if I had reciprocated the ones from the 3 A-Z Challenges. Oh
    my. So, I’m visiting today to say thank you. Courtney – It seems like it would be difficult to write a book in which everyone knows the ending, but it sounds like he made it exciting to read.