On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, 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 surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone.
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.
I’ve not experienced ship travel on such a grand scale, so much of the information presented in Dead Wake was new to me. I found it amazing, the adventure to be found on ships even as a child. The book starts slow, introducing relevant people and the preparations involved in Transatlantic travel. The narrative picks up quickly when the ship is attacked by the submarine, and Larson effectively portrayed the desperation felt by some of the passengers. Norah Bretherton, who was on board with her two children, handed her baby to a stranger when she was rushing to also save her son; as a mother myself, this particular event really affected me.
My average rating is in no way a reflection of the quality of research in this book. Larson tracked down extensive details relating to the ship itself, its passengers, and the general oceanic travel zeitgeist. However, I felt that the narrative occasionally became bogged down in the details. In some situations, details were repeated, which was somewhat distracting. I was also surprised by the lack of photos in the book — it would have been fascinating to see some of the documents to which Larson refers. In one instance, he directly refers to a painting of a scene that occurred after the sinking of the ship; since it wasn’t included in the book, I looked it up on my own.
I would have rated Dead Wake more highly had Larson done more showing and less telling.
– Review by Marleah