Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson.  New York:  Crown Publishers, 2015.   (430 pages)

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

“Dead Wake” is the story of the massive Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania that was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 with a huge loss of civilian life.  At the time of the tragedy, only 6 of the ship’s 22 lifeboats were able to launch and many men, women, and children were forced into the water in incorrectly donned lifejackets.

German U-Boat 20 was responsible for the attack—a submarine that had been prowling the North Atlantic water looking for neutral targets that were unprotected by British naval ships.  The submarine launched a single torpedo at the British-flagged passenger liner during the last day of its transatlantic voyage from New York.  It sunk the ship in less than 20 minutes and killed more than two-thirds of the almost 2,000 passengers and crew.

This event took place during a period when military action during the Great War was expanding rapidly and the United States had not yet become a combatant or issued a war declaration.  More than 150 Americans died in the attack and the bodies of as many as 600 passengers were never recovered.  Such submarine predations were cited by the American government as a reason for the US to declare war on Germany.

Author Erik Larson highlights many fascinating subplots including that of President Woodrow Wilson’s romance with second wife Edith Galt and bookseller Charles Lauriat’s antiquarian volumes that traveled on the Lusitania and were lost in the sinking.  Another prominent sub-plot involves female architect Theodate Pope, an aspiring spiritualist and paranormal enthusiast, who lost her traveling companion to drowning.  Playboy Alfred G Vanderbilt, the most socially prominent passenger who perished, is given little notice in the book—probably because he was the focus of a 2013 book on the sinking by another author.

U-Boat Captain Walther Schwieger is the narrator for a portion of the story, making for an interesting juxtaposition of viewpoints between “the hunter” and its prey.  The most telling information revealed is that British intelligence may have had more tracking capability of U-boats than was previously revealed, and therefore greater culpability in the death of innocents.

Described as narrative nonfiction, this is a gripping disaster tale that compares favorably with accounts of the sinking of the Titanic.  Author Erik Larson is an American journalist who has written multiple bestsellers focusing on the sensational, including popular works about both serial killers and Nazi Germany.

Lisa Kobrin is the reference and local history librarian for Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at