Dead Wake

I recently finished reading Erik Larson’s history Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I found the book while browsing non-fiction titles available from my local library, and decided to check it out since I’d enjoyed another one of Larson’s books a few years back. Anyway, Dead Wake is a multi-faceted account of the circumstances surrounding an historical event widely believed to have resulted in the United States of America joining the First World War (though I learned that it was actually two years and one day after the sinking of the Lusitania that the U.S. declared war on Germany). It’s well-researched, well-written, and a worthwhile read.

"Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson

The thing that was most remarkable about this book was that it collected research from German sources, British sources, and American sources. It didn’t just come at it from one vantage point. It included newspaper accounts from the time period… and top-secret British intelligence reports… and personal letters from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson… and notes from the submarine commander’s log… and details from personal letters that washed up on the shores of Ireland after the sinking of the Lusitania. It was quite the collection of perspectives! And Larson really deserves a lot of credit for weaving it all into a coherent and comprehensible account of something that happened all the way back in 1915.

Reading the narrative itself felt a little bit like watching a mash-up of James Cameron’s Titanic and Jonathan Mostow’s U-571. The vantage point shifted from chapter to chapter, mostly between following the large passenger liner, the Lusitania, and following the German submarine U-20. But Larson eventually wove in some fascinating details from the love life of Woodrow Wilson (I’m something of a presidential history nerd, and I honestly didn’t even know that he lost his wife and remarried during the course of his presidency!). And the story also shed some interesting light on another key historical figure: Winston Churchill, who was second in command for the British naval forces during the First World War (which I know but had kind of forgotten). As the book shows, the sinking of the Lusitania really was a bizarre — and highly unlikely — confluence of events. But its implications ended up being very significant.

I don’t know why that “Gilded Age” of American history intrigues me so much. Maybe because it was such an important period for Northeast Ohio… maybe because the reluctant nascence of the United States as a global power seems so different from the world I’ve grown up in… or maybe I see something in that era that actually feels quite relevant for our times… But I think this might now be one of my favorite periods of history to study. Dead Wake was really just recreational reading: something to wind down at the end of the long days of a new year of collegiate missions. Still, I learned a lot as I read — so I would recommend it both for entertainment and education.

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