Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania Summary

Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania Summary

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Narrative, or creative, nonfiction carries with it the burden of remaining historically accurate while at the same time framing the events at hand with a compelling storyline seen through characters (a term applied with caution to nonfiction) who inspire empathy in readers.  In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts) continues to display his mastery of the genre that was thrust into public consciousness by Truman Capote in 1966 with his In Cold Blood.

Dead Wake is the tale of the final, and ill-fated voyage, of the Lusitania, the British luxury liner that was considered more “unsinkable” than the Titanic.  It was bound for Liverpool, England upon setting sail from New York City on May 1, 1915.  It was at the time the fastest passenger vessel in service and carried on board the largest number of infants and children ever amassed on such a journey.  The juxtaposition of World War I and the social climate of the Progressive Era of industrialization and an increasing desire for social change sets the backdrop for an emotion filled story of a disaster of theretofore unimaginable magnitude.  Larson’s storytelling facility gives readers intimate details that go beyond “history book” accounts of the Lusitania disaster.

The story of the Lusitania begins with a confidence that ultimately contributes to its demise.  The size of the ship alone made anyone with reason to consider the possibility of it ever being a target of war, dismiss that notion.  It would, all assumed, certainly intimidate any potential attackers and had the speed and bulk to ram and disable any smaller vessels that might attempt to attack it.  Further the war between Britain and Germany had been in progress for years with an unwritten understanding that non-military vessels were not to be attacked.  In spite of past practice being on the side of the Lusitania’s voyage being safe from the events of World War I, there was an additional alert that went largely ignored thus contributing to advancement of the storyline upon which Larson builds.  The May 1, 1915 edition of the New York Times published a warning from the German embassy stating that commercial vessels were in fact possible targets in the waters of a war zone.  Nonetheless, the Lusitania was loaded and boarded as planned, beginning what would become a pivotal event in the First World War: the United States’ entry into the battle.

Through a cast of disparate personalities, Larson creates a traditional, but not cliché, good versus evil conflict.  If the Lusitania and its passengers are the protagonist, the antagonist can be seen as the German U-boat on the attack.  Fifty-eight year old Captain William Turner’s Lusitania passengers include Theodate Pope an architect and feminist, Cliff and Leslie Morton who are brothers working as deck hands, and Charles Lauriat the famed bookseller who has in his possession irreplaceable literary masterpieces. In contrast to the relatively sprawling seven stories tall setting of the ocean liner, is the cramped claustrophobic confines of the German U-boat helmed by thirty-two year old Captain Walther Schwieger.  Schwieger holds no soft spot for the sanctity of the human lives that would be lost in any attack. Larson however does not paint him as a warmongering enemy of humanity, but rather as a strong leader of men who was aggressive, albeit lacking in moral fiber.  Turner is the old school sailor, dedicated to the safety of his ship and crew and had already completed three Lusitania voyages.  Other of the work’s venues expand the cast of characters with a recently widowed President Woodrow Wilson who is rediscovering love and a London war room under the watch of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

Just shy of a week into its transatlantic voyage and within sight of the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was rendered inoperable by a torpedo launched by a German U-20 submarine.  All power in all systems was lost and in less than twenty minutes the ship was submerged and 1,198 lives, including those of 128 Americans, were lost.  The attack on the Lusitania, which edged a formerly neutral Woodrow Wilson towards supporting America’s entry into the war, was ironically considered a victory to both Germany and Britain with the former having wanted to lure the U.S. into the battle for some time and the latter having wanted to enlist the U.S. as an ally all along.

As in his previous works, Larson weaves historical facts and intimate details and emotions into a fabric that adds substance to context.  Critical acclaim for his texts has been widespread.  In the New York Times (March 3, 2015) Hampton Sides calls Erik Larson, “one of the modern masters of popular narrative nonfiction.  In book after book, he’s proved adept at rescuing weird and wonderful gothic tales from the shadows of history.  Larson is both a resourceful reporter and a subtle stylist who understands the tricky art of Edward Scissorhands-ing multiple narrative strands into a pleasing story.”

Through his narrative prowess and attention to details Larson lets his readers experience history, such as the sinking of an unsinkable ship, in an inclusive and engaging way where knowing the outcome does little to detract from the experience.