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Dead Wake
By Erik Larson
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Dead Wake
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Random House Large Print, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8041-9461-7
Genre: History

Reviewed by Boris Segel - April 2, 2015

On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. She sank of the southern coast of Ireland, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew members from a total compliment of 1,959. Worse of all, she was only eleven miles from land when she was sunk. She was close enough for the passengers to see Ireland, but she was also within an area designated by the Germans as a war zone. The vessel left New York on May 1, 1915, headed toward her destination of Liverpool, Ireland. Being a passenger vessel, most people believed that sailing on the Lusitania would be a safe venture. They were wrong. In this engaging work of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson examines the sinking of the Lusitania in his new book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Appreciatively, this book was released in large print at the same time the standard print edition was issued. Consequently, readers of large print can get in on all the 'buzz' surrounding this book, from the get-go!

Technically, the RMS Lusitania, a vessel in the Cunard line, was a civilian craft and as such, should not have been targeted by the Germans. There is however, ample evidence available, some of which was released just after the sinking, which shows that the British had been using the ship to transport ammunition. As such, the ship was being used as both a commercial and military carrier. Before the Lusitania set sail, the German embassy in the United States posted notices in American newspapers reminding potential passengers sailing to Great Britain that they would be sailing into a war zone. Many assumed that this warning was targeted specifically at those planning to sail on the Lusitania. At least 128 Americans ignored this warning, and they paid with their lives.

Because the ship was carrying ammunitions, it was, in the eyes of the Germans, fair game. The passengers are unlikely to have known about the duel use of the vessel, but they were aware of the threat posed by German submarines. In crafting this tale, Larson looks at both sides of the issue, describing the events leading up to the sinking, and its aftermath from both the British and German perspectives. He also delves into the American response to the sinking, and world opinion on the event. Most important, he also examines the sinking through the eyes of those that suffered through it. He provides the reader with a glimpse at the luxury that the passengers enjoyed during the first part of the voyage, and the horrors that greeted them after the torpedoing. The rescue efforts to save the fortunate few are also documented, as are repercussions of the sinking, both in terms of the immediate aftermath and how the sinking helped to spur United States's eventual entry into World War I.

Reading like a novel, Dead Wake is a hard book to put down. Even those who detest 'history' books will be drawn to this saga. Larson is a wonderful word painter, whose prose takes you so vividly into a scene that you feel that you are experiencing the very events you are reading about. Along the way, Larson has interwoven first hand accounts of the sinking, along with excerpts from official documents such as Kptlt, Walther Schwieger's log book. (Schwieger was the commander of the U-boat.) Along the way he also introduces the reader to many of the people who sailed on the Lusitania, from well-known figures such as Alfred Vanderbilt and Elbert Hubbard to ordinary people such as Nellie Huston and Norah Bretherton. In introducing these people, Larson brings them to life as three-dimensional characters with hopes and cares, rather than as mere statistics. Their fates, as well as many more are documented in this book - sometimes in grisly detail.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is a fascinating book, and one that is sure to enthrall a wide cross section of readers from those interested in the history of the First World War and Maritime history, to fans of biographies, and simply anyone who enjoys reading a thrilling adventure story tinged with a bit of a mystery. In this case the story, and the mysteries that surround it, just happen to be true!

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