Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson. A gripping account of history that puts a human face on the tragedy

Story: Diane Dean

Thinking a about a cruise? “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson is not recommended reading while on your cruise. Spoiler alert—the luxury liner Lusitania took its last voyage in May 1915.

This book tells the story of the Lusitania’s voyage from New York to Liverpool in 1915. Captain William Thomas Turner was not prepared for a torpedo attack though Germany had earlier declared the north Atlantic to be a war zone. The Lusitania, a fast and luxurious liner, tended to draw the richest and most prominent passengers, including Alfred Vanderbilt and Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, who traveled with invaluable Thackery drawings and an original Charles Dickens work. Theodate Pope, an architect and suffragette, and complicated character was also onboard. Many others lives were illuminated as the story of the crossing unfolded.

The Bookworm Book Club discussion facilitated by Nancie Rohmann asked several questions of attendees:

How did the people unable to sail on the Lusitania feel after the tragedy? Were there munitions on the ship for the British Army and did that cause the second explosion? How can a ship sail with faulty lifeboats and no instructions on how to put on life jackets? Were porthole windows left open the cause of the rapid sinking? Did a delayed departure, going slow to save fuel, along with the fog lifting create a perfect storm for the Germans to torpedo the ship? If the manifest of cargo was not butter, but munitions for the British military, why did the British not intervene to save the ship? Did Winston Churchill intend the Lusitania to entice a U-boat torpedoing? Did the British deliberately not respond to the sinking in order to lure the United States into World War I? Was Woodrow Wilson a lovesick puppy and ineffective in a time of crisis? President Wilson (recently widowed) was courting Edith Galt and may have not focused on the war in Europe.

The author also described life aboard the German submarine. Temperatures reached 100 degrees within the sub, 36 men who never bathed had only one lavatory, and diesel fuel smell permeated everything. Captain Walther Schweiger, who surely knew the Lusitania was a passenger ship, decided to torpedo the British ship in a quest for “tonnage” rather than respect innocent human life. His strike took down the largest ocean liner in only 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 764 survived though 1,198 died, and 123 were U.S. citizens. Yet after this tragedy, it still took President Wilson two years to ask Congress for a vote to enter the war.

The author switched between characters as he told their personal stories and built suspense relating one of the great sea disasters of history. It is a book about lost lives and the politics behind the loss. This may have been considered the first “terrorist” attack. Before this happened, countries played by the war rules. In a massive tragedy, there are always questions but not always answers. The author, Larson, raises many questions that were considered during the book discussion.


About the Author

Erik Larson graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. He lives in Seattle. His blog on his website shows his sense of humor, though his books have taken on very serious subjects and include “Isaac’s Storm,” “In the Garden of Beasts,” and “Devil in the White City.” The latter is to be a movie produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorcese.


Member Comments 

Erik Larson does it again! His gift of storytelling and his extensive research depicts the horror of the sinking of the Lusitania so vividly with the events, it felt as if a movie was playing in my mind as I read this book.

—Gail Feind, Pennecamp

Book is slow going at first but very well researched with incredible detail.  The gruesome descriptions of the dead leaves one wondering.

—Pam Sherman, Santa Domingo

Erik Larson has written a true story that read like a fictional story. The “what ifs” can make you forever wonder “how” and “why.”

—Charlotte Priestner, Rio Ponderosa

Erik Larson is masterful in the story telling narration of the Lusitania. He captures the events surrounding the disaster including the political, historical, and sociological. He is always able to draw the reader into the momentous events of history. Read all of his books.

—Kathie Caron, Winifred

Another riveting book from a favorite nonfiction author! Larson is a master at bringing history to life.

—Kathy Porter, Rio Ponderosa