Summary (from Goodreads):
“On May 1, 1915, 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 anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds” 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. He knew, moreover, that his ship–the fastest then in service–could outrun any threat.
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, mystery, and real-life suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to President 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 that helped place America on the road to war.”
As you know, I don’t read very much nonfiction, but I’d heard very good things about Erik Larson and I jumped at the chance to read this book.
As he noted himself in the epilogue, there are a lot of misperceptions about the Lusitania and its deliberate sinking at the hands of the Germans during World War I. I also thought that it was one of the immediate causes of our entering the war (although it took two more years, in reality).
One of the chilling things I learned while reading this was just how many times this was almost averted. Depending on your perspective, everything went wrong (or right), and it led to this happening. If weather conditions earlier had been different, or if a few incredibly small things had happened differently, the Lusitania never would have been torpedoed.
It’s incredibly sad to think about how many things had to come together perfectly to enable this.
I look forward to reading more of his books.