The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larsen

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.

Gail Reid (07/24/16): Erik Larson's latest narrative blockbuster "Dead Wake" is really an eye opener. I approached reading about the sinking of the Lusitania with some dread and justifiably so. Larson socks us with a hundred pages of heavily researched, dry information on submarine and naval history. But that was my only stumbling block! Stick with this book because a terrific story lies within. The author weaves in the back story of some of the famous people who were on board; what life among the first, second and third class travelers was like; how Woodrow Wilson kept us out of World War I for two years while mourning his first wife and courting his second; the aggression of a single German U-boat commander and the secret manipulations of British intelligence.

I'd recommend this book especially to book clubs because there is so much interesting material to discuss. I'm often amazed at how little U.S. history we know and how a talented author can engage us in understanding the times. Rating: ****

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