Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

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Dead Wake by Erik Larson, trade paperback from library, March 2015, 430p.

3 stars.

Dead Wake had to have been one of the most hyped non-fiction books in 2015, and I decided that I couldn’t let it sail past without at least giving it a read. I’ve always enjoyed nonfiction about boats, especially submarines, and Dead Wake follows the sinking of the steam passenger ship, Lusitania by the German U-Boat, U-20 during WWI.

I’m not familiar with Erik Larson’s previous work, but was impressed by the quality of the writing. Larson is very adept at weaving together the stories of multiple people and following them throughout and after the disaster. I didn’t find his writing exceptional, rather proficient. What is exceptional is Larson’s ability to select a story that can captivate an audience and including a mix of personalities that we know or come to know.

Honestly, I found the chapters about the U-20 and Walther Schwieger to be more interesting than the ones aboard the Lusitania or on dry land. The operation of the U-boat, and the way the captain of the ship, Schwieger, had complete command over which ships he was going to attack, where he was going to travel and how he was going to conduct missions was really interesting to me, I didn’t actually know much about WWI U-Boat operations. I found the descriptions of his personality to be especially interesting – he seemed like a ruthless but personable character. I would have liked to know more about the other Germans who were onboard, but we only really got introduced to one other person on the U-Boat.

The numerous chapters about President Wilson and Edith Galt were boring, not necessary to the plot and seemed to be thrown in because the author felt he needed a romantic subplot. He didn’t. It wasn’t entertaining, I was more entertained in the half page story of Clementine Churchill’s dinner party. The pace at sea was increasing, the intelligence was heating up, the war was being inched forward in the trenches with thousands dead, the politics were becoming more convoluted between the numerous countries – but now we must stop to see the President and Galt go for a drive in his car and a round of golf in the morning. It would break the rising tension and frustrate me every time, it was badly constructed and I can’t imagine anyone REALLY caring about this relationship.

There is one thing missing from this edition of Dead Wake that was surprising to me – a lack of pictures and maps. Normally in a nonfiction like this you get treated to at least one package of photos – usually glossy pages in the middle of the book. I would have expected a number of pictures of the Lusitania, some of U-Boats, maybe even a destroyer, pictures of what some of the other sunk boats looked like, a map of where major events occurred, pictures of the people included in the novel. I know that there are pictures of all these things because Larson mentions people taking the photos and he includes them in his notes. In Dead Wake there was a single picture of the Lusitania at dock. There were no pictures of what a U-Boat looks like, or a map of the path the ships took. It was something that I personally missed, because my factual brain liked to know what things actually look like, not what my imagination assumes.

The action of the story was addictive, and I enjoyed the chapters dedicated to the actual sinking of the ship and the aftermath. I won’t say much more about it, but the gradual conspiracy that emerges through the book is terrifying and made me look at a certain Englishman in a different light.

To conclude, Dead Wake was enjoyable but I don’t think it quite lived up to its hype. I would recommend it to readers of naval history, world war one history or those who enjoy the occasional non-fiction romp.

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