‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson – The Sinking of the Lusitania

‘Dead Wake’ by Erik Larson (2015) – 359 pages      Grade: B



The sinking of the Lusitania was no accident. The giant passenger cruise ship was torpedoed by a German submarine U-boat on May 7, 1915 during World War I leaving 1198 passengers and crew dead. Germany had just issued an advisory against ship travel through the war zone, but the warning was paid little attention.

“The idea that Germany would dare attempt to sink a fully loaded civilian passenger ship seemed beyond rational consideration.”

At that point there were still rules about not killing civilians in wars, but those rules were rapidly disappearing. The United States consul in Queenstown, Ireland said, “The reference to the Lusitania was obvious enough, but personally it never entered my mind for a moment that the Germans would perpetrate an attack upon her. The culpability of such an act seemed too blatant and raw for an intelligent people to take upon themselves.”

However the German U-boat commander had no misgivings about torpedoing a liner full of civilians. His performance was measured in the amount of ship tonnage he sank.

The non-fiction ‘Dead Wake’ covers the sinking of the Lusitania in a very traditional fashion. The ship name ‘Lusitania’ was the country name that the ancient Romans had given to Portugal. We get the stories of a number of the passengers on the boat and all the details about what was on the boat, its route, and what happened on deck. After the ship was torpedoed, it listed so badly that only 6 of the 22 lifeboats could be launched, and soon the ship tipped over completely and sank. Some of the passengers mistakenly thought that they would be safer on the huge ship than on the tiny lifeboats.

A mass wail rose from all it engulfed.  “All the despair, terror and anguish of hundreds of souls passing into eternity composed that awful cry.”

There is some speculation that England did not adequately guard the huge cruise ship through dangerous waters because there were many Americans on board, and England wanted to force the United States into World War I. 128 Americans were among the dead. There were also war munitions on board the Lusitania.

The only other Erik Larson I read was ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ which was about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in the years leading up to World War II. This was new and highly compelling material, a story I did not know before about this entire American family dealing with the Nazis. I may be different from most of Larson’s audience, but this ship disaster did not hold my interest to that extent. Tragedies happen nearly every day, and each one has its compelling details which we get in the newspapers. Reading the Wikipedia article about the Lusitania probably would have been sufficient for me. I really don’t want or need all the minutia about the Lusitania’s final voyage. With his talent for exposition, Erik Larson should be finding more original striking story lines.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Read a few reviews of this one. Sounds interesting enough. Thanks for sharing! if you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!



    • Hi Book Guy,
      I checked your site, and was most impressed with the large number of likes you get there. Since most of these people are not ones who frequent my site, I am now following your blog. I also am impressed by your very readable typeface.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person


  2. This has gotten so much buzz, and I’m very glad to know I do NOT have to read it. I prefer biographies to other nonfiction, but Larson seems to be one of those writers like Laura Hildenbrand whom we should know whatever our taste. I’ll skip the Lusitania.



    • Hi Kat,
      Yes, I found ‘Dead Wake’ quite standard disaster fare, much like a book I read about the Titanic many years ago, but the Titanic had the advantage of being an accident and not an act of war. I suspect my time would have been better spent reading Larson’s ‘The Devil in the White City’.



  3. I think Mr. Larson is overrated. For years people kept on me to read The Devil in the White City, but for some reason I had no interest. Then my other half really enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts. I thought parts of it were interesting but overall I think his material would have been better as the basis for a novel because the non-fiction version was a little boring.



    • Hi Thomas,
      My tastes almost run exclusively to fiction also. For some reason Erik Larson’s work is greeted with the enthusiasm which is usually kept for fiction. I did really like ‘Garden of Beasts’ for its unique story but thought ‘Dead Wake’ was standard ship tragedy fare. I probably won’t jump on the bandwagon for Larson’s next book unless the subject really, really interests me.



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