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dead wake

8 december 2015

Erik Larson's Dead Wake turned out to be the perfect audiobook to enjoy over a holiday week spent recovering from eye surgery. Well, one shouldn't perhaps say "enjoy" when you're reading about the sudden deaths of a thousand innocent people. But the book is exceedingly well-told, suspenseful, informative – and diverting, as books should be even when they're serious popular history. Scott Brick's narration is outstanding, maintaining an even, detached feel through some fairly heated narrative, distanced but compassionate.

Larson tells the story of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania in short chapters from alternating perspectives. We see the captain, crew, and passengers preparing to sail, luxuriating during the voyage, and then plunged into the terror of the attack. We see the U-Boat coming from the opposite direction, its men enduring the anxieties and boredoms of their "patrol." We see the leaders of the US and UK (and to a much lesser extent those of Germany). We start a little before the sinking, build to it and hear about it in great detail, and then move to a lengthy coda that tells of the Lusitania's legacy of war and trauma.

I suppose Larson could have developed some critical themes further than he does. Woodrow Wilson is a major figure in the story, but Wilson is presented as a reactive, lovelorn figure. He tries to keep the nation out of war, apparently so he can enjoy some years of bliss with Edith Bolling Galt. Never mentioned is the ever-growing American financial stake in the Allied war effort that eventually proved more decisive than German U-Boat warfare in bringing the United States into the First World War.

Larson does convey the horror of shipwreck, the curiously advanced yet primitive conditions aboard U-Boats, the adventure of cryptography, the blunderings of governments. (Every relevant book one reads seems to make Winston Churchill more and more of an idiot.)

The most ambiguous character is Walther Schwieger, captain of the U-Boat that sunk the Lusitania. He seems to have been an extremely competent, confident, and highly-admired commander. He also seems to have sunk a huge passenger liner and killed a thousand people without a qualm. He was under orders to do so (and the Germans had made a public warning that it might happen), though that excuses nobody. Larson does note (though he makes little of it, analytically) that the Lusitania was actually carrying munitions for the British war effort, which seems colossally immoral. Larson also suggests that the British government – in the person of Churchill, who had access to decoded German transmissions – could easily have provided the liner with destroyer escorts that would have effectively turned the U-Boat away. Historians who have looked at the complicated archives have sometimes gone so far as to infer a deliberate plot on Churchill's part to get a passenger liner sunk and bring the US into the war. As it turned out, the liner was sunk and two years still elapsed before American action.

Dead Wake resorts to some padding. We hear at length about the Gallipoli campaign, which aside from proving Churchill an idiot again adds little to the story. Even Brick is guilty of some mispronunciations of German words: Vaterland, Windstille, Zimmermann … I guess Zimmermann is forgivable because it's also an American name, but it makes the Reichsstaatssekretär sound like the third baseman for the Cubs.

Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The last crossing of the Lusitania. 2015. Read by Scott Brick. New York: Random House Audio, 2015.