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Bookmonger: “Dead Wake” revisits legendary at-sea disaster

“Dead Wake”

Erik Larson

For quite some time, Seattle has been proud to claim Erik Larson as one of its best-known, best-selling authors, although the press accompanying Larson’s latest book, “Dead Wake,” says that Larson now divides his time between New York and Seattle.

Before he gives up the Pacific Northwest entirely, and because a Northwest identification of some kind is the qualifier for appearing in this review column, I jumped at the opportunity to read Larson’s latest, which is about the sinking a century ago of the magnificent, four-funneled Cunard ocean liner called the Lusitania.

The title is perfect on a number of levels, the most obvious being the maritime definition of dead wake – a trail left behind on the surface of the water by a passing ship or some other object. Such as a torpedo.

And indeed, about two-thirds of the way through this book, the author provides several mesmerizing pages that describe the torpedo launch from the German U-boat and how it was perceived by those aboard the Lusitania that infamous day in early May, 1915.

But as Larson demonstrates throughout this carefully reconstructed account, it wasn’t solely the action undertaken by a German submarine captain that led to this devastating encounter that cost over a thousand civilian lives. Rather, it was a “confluence of forces.” In the wake of this terrible maritime incident there was a long trail of decisions, policies, actions and – especially bedeviling – inactions that ended up propelling – albeit slowly – the United States’ entry into World War I.

As he has done in his other books (”Isaac’s Storm,” “Devil in the White City,” “In the Garden of Beasts”) Larson builds both chronology and suspense by juxtaposing viewpoints. In this case, he follows the thoughts and actions of everyone from President Woodrow Wilson, to the captain and passengers aboard the Lusitania, to crewmen aboard the submarine that brought the ocean liner down.

Larson also focuses on the work of a top-secret spy group in Britain that failed to share intelligence it had gathered that might have protected the Lusitania. Perhaps there were concerns that this would have compromised the spies’ cover. Or there’s another interpretation that suggests darker intentionality. Some of these findings are not original to Larson, but he incorporates these speculations into a riveting account overall.

The incidents that led up to this tragedy – the many “if-onlys” in the case – have resonance for every generation, including our own, as we watch events unspool in our own time and select leaders to respond, we hope, with wisdom and clarity.

“Dead Wake,” like Larson’s previous book “In the Garden of Beasts,” is an expertly crafted look at the step-by-step descent into war through the lens of individual human experience. It is tragic and it is utterly spellbinding.

That said, I do find myself hoping that Larson someday might turn his powerful talents toward unearthing and retracing the threads of a dramatic true story that has borne a more hopeful outcome for humanity.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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