Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Title:  Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author:  Erik Larson
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0307408868 / 978-0307408860

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounger, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings."

Favorite Quote:  "At 2:33 pm, the wireless station at the Old Head of Kindle sent the Admiralty a two-word message:  'Lusitania sunk.' ... A great ship, present one moment, gone the next, leaving what appeared at a distance to be an empty blue sea."

May 7, 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. Many of us think we know the story; at least, we know what the history books say. A hundred years later, the story of the Lusitania is still tragic and rife with grief.

The brief version of the history is as follows. The Lusitania was a passenger liner, owned and operated by the British Cunard line. The ship went into to commission in 1906. On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania sailed from New York, bound for Liverpool. It carried over 1,200 passenger and about 700 crew members.

The Lusitania route sailed through waters declared by Germany to be war zones. In fact, German ads of this declaration appeared as warnings in newspapers right next to the ads for the Lusitania sailing. The ship sailed anyways, assuming safety since it sailed as a commercial, passenger vessel - a designation that provided protection from attack.

On May 7, 2015, the Lusitania was close to its final destination of Liverpool. A German U-boat attacked, launching a single torpedo. The torpedo hit the starboard side and exploded. A very short eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania sank. Almost 1,200 of the people on board lost their lives.

Erik Larson's book brings this history to life - from many different perspectives and at a truly human level. The beginning of the book sets the stage - the escalation of war in Europe, the desire of the British to draw the United States into the war, the view of the war from the American side, and the use of the submarine attacks by the Germans. At the same time, Mr. Larson develops the human story - Captain Turner of the Lusitania; Walter Schwieger, the captain of U-boat; members of the British Admiralty; Room 40, a secret aspect of British intelligence; Woodrow Wilson's occupation with his personal life; and the lives of some of the passengers on board the Lusitania.

The details in the book are meticulously researched. The details of the ship can be found in historical records. The historical records of the captains of both the Lusitania and the U-boat can also be found. The passengers whose stories are highlighted are those who, according to Mr. Larson, "left vivid detailed accounts ... and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail." One survivor, a book collector and seller, Charles Lauriat even wrote a book about his experience of survival. "The key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts--you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader's imagination." (quotes from Mr. Larson's interview with Shelf Awareness)

What is perhaps most amazing about the book is the sense of foreboding and suspense it manages to create. I know the history. I know how it ends, but I find myself on the edge of my seat, contemplating what is coming next. That is the skill of Mr. Larson's writing and perhaps also his goal. The author's note in fact says, "My goal was to try to marshal the many nodes of real-life suspense, and, yes, romance, that marked the Lusitania episode, in a manner that would allow readers to experience it as did the people who lived through it at the time..." The book succeeds brilliantly at this goal.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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