I learned a long time ago when a bartender recommends a book, you follow that recommendation. Last winter, I joined an old buddy of mine for beers at a neighborhood watering hole. As the two of us sat at the bar catching up, he introduced me to the bartender, who in turn happened to be a buddy of his. As the three of us chatted away, I noticed our friendly barkeeper had a copy of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Since I’ve read several of Larson’s books and enjoyed them all, I asked him what he thought of Dead Wake. He spoke highly of Larson’s recent offering, praising both his storytelling and his choice in subject matter. According to our good barkeeper one if the reasons he found the sinking of the Lusitania so fascinating was even though it happened a century ago, it nonetheless occurred during the modern age. Therefore, one can go to You Tube and watch old footage of American and British aristocracy boarding the ship for what would be its last, and sadly disastrous voyage. For me, that was all the recommending I needed to read this book.
But lo and behold, it took one more person to recommend this book to me before I read it. One of my book club buddies upon hearing me mention this book and set out to read it himself. Then, after finishing it and raving about it, I finally grabbed an available copy of my public library and got down to reading it. I’m happy to say just like Larson did with his early books In the Garden of Beasts, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm he did not disappoint me.
Perhaps there’s two reasons why Dead Wake works so well as book. One, Larson has a true talent writing about history and making it come alive. Second, in order to help make the past come alive in his writing, he focuses on the significant and fascinating personalities of the day. Not only does this put a human face on history, but it also makes it relatable to readers. Lastly, Larson looks at the Lusitania’s sinking with a panoramic lens, giving us the perspective from not just the British and American authorities but also from that of the German U-boat and its captain Walther Schwieger. But most interesting of all, it’s Larson’s look inside British intelligence and the author’s compelling argument the British military knew the Lusitania was in danger and yet did nothing to warn the ship. With the ocean liner’s sinking one of the major factors that later caused the United States to declare war on German and its allies, one wonders if America was set-up in some way.
Anyway, this is an outstanding book. Don’t be surprised if it ends up making my year-end Best of List. Please consider Dead Wake highly recommended.