This is what I knew about the Lusitania before I read Dead Wake:
1. It was sunk by a German submarine on 7th May, 1915
2. There were no survivors
3. The sinking led to America joining World War I
Rather, this is what I thought I knew because it turns out that, other than the date, I didn’t know anything at all. There were survivors (although not many – 764 out of nearly 2,000 passengers and crew) and America didn’t join the war for another two years. I am always amazed by how little I know about what I think I know!
After reading Dead Wake, I obviously know a lot more – more than I ever thought I would about the world of luxury ocean liners definitely – and I do feel just a little bit wiser as a result. The facts and figures, though, were the least important or interesting part of the book for me. It was the people, whose stories I got to hear thanks to detailed records, diaries, journal and letters that have been preserved (including the log of the U-boat captain responsible for sinking the Lusitania).
By using these, Erik Larson does a brilliant job of turning a 100 year old tragedy into something that feels very real. I felt connected to the people he described and was genuinely affected when I realised that some of the people I was reading about, who I thought were telling their stories after the fact, hadn’t made it and their words had come from their letters, diaries and the memories of others.
The records showed a level of naivety (or innocence?) that amazed me. The passengers just didn’t think they were at risk, despite a German warning published in newspapers that the Lusitania was fair game, and Cunard was convinced the ship was too fast and too big to sink. In this age of heightened security it is hard to imagine but I have to remember this is a different time, one where the rules of war were changing but no one quite understood how much.
Erik Larson does a good job of setting the scene for the world as it was and creating a sense of place and time. My only complaint here would be that, given the US didn’t enter the war in 1915, he spent a little too much time on Woodrow Wilson’s personal life. For me, these are the only bit that dragged and I found my eyes skimming these sections.
Otherwise though, I found the book absorbing. It was well written with enough detail to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge without feeling dry. The personal aspect I mentioned earlier really helped with this but so did the language, which wasn’t overly technical. There was also a nice mix of pace, with short chapters here and there – maybe a letter or a telegraph – to break things up.
The only other thing I would have liked is some pictures but his was an e-book and a review copy so I am not sure if you’d get those in the paper version. It would have helped me (and stopped me reverting to google). This though is minor and wouldn’t stop me recommending it – liked it a lot!
Note: this is a review copy but all thoughts, feelings, and comments are my own.