by Eric Larson
Reviewed by Jeanne Garrett.
In May of 1915 the British Cunard Line cruise ship, the Lusitania on a return voyage from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Ireland, and sunk. This action led the Germans I boats for a time to stop civilian ships as targets on open waters but later German Military reinstituted this practice and that action led to the United States involvement to help the British in World war One.
Eric Larson sets the novel of real people’s lives to weave the current events of those 5 days into a story filled with historical personal accounts from newspapers, diaries, museums, the trial transcripts and military dispatches.
Larson’s heavily researched history turns our focus on the main characters, Captain William Thomas Turner of the Cunard Cruise ship Lusitania and Commander Schwieger of the German U-boat, U-20 and the crew that sunk the Lusitania. The story paints a picture of their personal lives and the influences they used for the decisions they made that marked history.
For readers it’s not a dry list of facts from history, it’s a story about people with full characters from all walks of life, soldiers, new parents, children, business men, stowaways, prisoners, Americans, Europeans,British and Irish Citizens, and German spies. Most [of these passengers] experience a terrible fate and die. This story follows the survivors who after the horrific event go on to have world influencing careers during the first half of the 20th century. The footnote section at the end of the novel reads as a timeline of people we know in history from then US President and recently widowed, Woodrow Wilson, to the early military days of Winston Churchill. There is the amazing rescue of Theodore Riddle a survivor that becomes a great female architect in the early 20th century, and also a description of war departments and political careers formed during the course of World War I.
Unlike the documentary type facts written about descriptions of WWI, Dead Wake allows the reader to think about the real lives of the characters and for us to draw our own conclusions about the actions of the passengers, crews, governments, and military of the day. Further, we are taken to wonder if the cruise ship could have been carrying disguised ammunition that would have made it a target during war. For the military buffs a full description from The German U-boat logs hold the entries describing being cut off from all communications for days at a time. An excellent book for a book club discussion. An excellent book for an educator’s reference. A book that is hard to put down, entertaining and informative.