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Book review: Larson's 'Dead Wake' is history at its best

Posted April 18

"DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania," by Erik Larson, Broadway Books, $17, 452 pages (nf)

The Lusitania was regarded as unsinkable not only because of its tremendous size but also because it was blazingly fast. It departed from New York in the spring of 1915 but did so after a warning had been issued by the German government. Most assumed the Germans would leave the Lusitania alone because it was filled with civilian passengers, including many women and children.

Author Erik Larson tells of the ship’s final voyage and its ultimate sinking in his captivating book “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.”

A single torpedo fired by a German submarine sunk the Lusitania with only a day left on its journey and within sight of land. Even though there was a gaping hole in its side, many still believed the Lusitania wouldn’t sink. But 18 minutes later, with its entourage of nearly 2,000 stranded in the water, the ship submerged.

Larson recounts this fascinating account in his highly researched nonfiction volume that reads more like an epic novel than a history book. Larson doesn’t just serve as a narrator; he uses many quotes from the people involved in the disaster, adding a depth to this historical read that is usually only enjoyed in novels. By the time the Lusitania sets sail, it’s easy to feel as though one is actually on board as so many details are given about its captain, crew and many passengers.

Those on board the Lusitania aren’t the only individuals highlighted in “Dead Wake.” The German submarine captain; the secret doings in Room 40, known only to an elite few of the British government; and the personal drama and romance of United States President Woodrow Wilson are also recounted, adding tremendous dimension to the book.

“Dead Wake” is a clean and fascinating read, and its handful of profanities come from direct quotes. The minor romances referenced never go beyond hand-holding. There are a few mentions of war’s carnage and the physical remains of some of the Lusitania’s casualties, but these references help add realism and dimension. The violence is extremely limited and is handled with brevity.

Larson is a journalist and author of several best-sellers. He lives in Seattle with his family.

Elizabeth Reid has bachelor's degrees in economics and history. She has worked in retail, medical billing, catering, education and business fields. Her favorite occupation is that of wife and mother. She blogs at agoodreid.blogspot.com.

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