I was disappointed in Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, so wasn’t looking forward to Dead Wake. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and in fact, this might be one of Larson’s better narrative nonfiction stories that tackles a monumental historical event: the sinking of the Lusitania, which claimed the lives of over 1,000 civilians.
In May of 1915, Cunard’s Lusitania set sail from New York City bound for London and was commanded by Captain Turner. This was early WWI when Germany’s U-boats were destroying British ships but Woodrow Wilson and the United States had not yet been involved in the war. The British had been monitoring the whereabouts of certain U-boats in a secret room named “Room 40” but where unable to always use this to their advantage for fear of revealing that they had been able to decode German communications.
The ship was struck by a torpedo from a German submarine near the end of its journey close to Ireland’s coast. Despite it’s size, the ship sunk in approx 16 minutes. The crew who knew how to man the lifeboats were trapped in the luggage room, and the way the boat list, the majority of the lifeboats were inaccessible. Those who had life vests where not instructed on how to wear them beforehand, and many had them on backward or upside down, rendering them useless. When reports came out that Lusitania went down, other ships in the area that were sent to rescue passengers where then deterred from helping because of concerns that they would also become targets.
The sinking of the Lusitania and the lost of so many American lives is what finally forced the United States into World War I two years later. Wilson is not painted as a strong president in this book, at least in my opinion.
You can tell Larson has done his research, as his retelling shares many details you might not have known and reads like a thriller. This is highly recommended to history buffs and anyone interested in ship wrecks.