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Reviews of Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

Dead Wake by Erik Larson X
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 448 pages

    Mar 2016, 480 pages


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Book Summary

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era's great transatlantic "Greyhounds" and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. He knew, moreover, that his ship - the fastest then in service - could outrun any threat.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger's U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small - hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more--all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don't, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour, mystery, and real-life suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope Riddle to President Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster that helped place America on the road to war.


On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.

There was already a good deal of tension in the room, despite the singing and piano playing and clumsy magic tricks, and this became more pronounced when Turner stepped forward at intermission. His presence had the perverse effect of affirming everything the passengers had been fearing since their departure from New York, in the way that a priest's arrival tends to ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. In his Note to Readers, Erik Larson writes that before researching Dead Wake, he thought he knew "everything there was to know" about the sinking of the Lusitania, but soon realized "how wrong [he] was." What did you know about the Lusitania before reading the book? Did any of Larson's revelations surprise you?

  2. After reading Dead Wake, what was your impression of Captain Turner? Was he cautious enough? How did you react to the Admiralty's attempts to place the blame for the Lusitania's sinking squarely on his shoulders?

  3. Erik Larson deftly weaves accounts of glamorous first-class passengers such as Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt with compelling images of middle-class families and of the ship's crew. Whose personal story ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Dead Wake.
You can see the full discussion here.

After reading Dead Wake, what was your impression of Captain Turner? Was he cautious enough? How did you react to the Admiralty's attempts to place the blame on him?
Captain Turner, being an experienced captain, knew the danger of traversing those waters during wartime. He did the best with what he had information-wise to go on. Too many pieces were stacked against him and his ship, from lack of current ... - sherria

details about submarine life
I had the pleasure of working for many years with a retired US Naval officer who spent his career on submarines, mostly during the Cold War. While there were many things he still could not, and never will be, able to share, he had fabulous stories ... - jwbriggs13

Do you think Captain Schwieger and his U-20 crew were committing acts of terrorism? Does it matter that Germany ran advertisements declaring the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone?
This was definitely an act of terrorism. If Schwieger had attacked a military boat or convoy, he would have been well within his rights ... warning had been given. I may be biased, but any act of war against civilian women and children is a ... - ylhoff

Do you think that wars of the past impacted civilian populations differently than modern wars do?
I am slightly younger than LeaAnn and her husband--73, born in Washington DC during WW II. So what she says about war on the home front resonates with me, since my parents spoke of both WW's and wartime US. On the other hand, Korea and Viet Nam didn'... - katherinep

How did Captain Schwieger's leadership style compare with that of Captain Turner? Did you feel sympathy for Schwieger and his crew?
I think it's hard as an American to have any sympathy for Schwieger. I believe Larson was being kind to him. His sights were on a sinking a ship without regard for the lives lost. Any man who can walk away from self-created carnage without any ... - ylhoff

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Once again, Larson transforms a complex event into a thrilling human interest story. This suspenseful account will entice readers of military and maritime history along with lovers of popular history.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster.

Publishers Weekly
Larson convincingly constructs his case for what happened and why, and by the end, we care about the individual passengers we've come to know - a blunt reminder that war is, at its most basic, a matter of life and death.

Reader Reviews

Cathryn Conroy

This Is the Best Kind of Nonfiction Book: A Fact-Filled Page-Turner
Crescendo. That is the best word to describe this book. From page one, the story slowly builds to a crescendo that is searing, heartbreaking, tragic, and absolutely frustrating—because at so many points along the way, the sinking of the famed ...   Read More

Erik Larson takes you on board the Lusitania.You learn about the ship, its passengers, and the last crossing of this Great ship. A MASTERPIECE OF WRITING. You will not be able to put it down. You become part of this great liner.

Erik Larson Does It Again!
Just as in all his books, Erik Larson does his research and spins a tale of non-fiction as engrossing and interesting as any novel. His main character in this one is the elegant, stream-lined, grayhound of the seas, HMS Lusitania. She is a tragic ...   Read More

Greyhound Of The Seas
As you read Erik Larson's new book, "Dead Wake" you are transformed into the "golden era" of transatlantic voyaging.the Seas" for its speed and form, you accompany the crew and "elite" passengers as they leave New ...   Read More

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