Who doesn’t like an exciting maritime survival story? Mix in fascinating edge of your seat history and you’ve got Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.
Larson, who is well-known for his outstanding books, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America and In the Garden of Beasts: Love,Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, combines historical facts with excerpts from real passengers’ diaries, letters, telegrams, intelligence ledgers, and war logs from American and British archives. He wrote the book to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the sinking.
For those who forgot their high school American history, the attack on the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-boat torpedo in calm, glassy waters twelve miles off the southern coast of Ireland is one of the reasons that the United States entered World War I although it was nearly two years after the May 7, 1915 incident.
The book alternates between the activities of various passengers and staff on the Lusitania, the German U-boat, U-20’s crew, the secret British intelligence unit Room 40 and President Woodrow Wilson.
Although the Lusitania had twenty-two lifeboats only six made it into the water before the book sank in only eighteen minutes and killed 1198 passengers, 123 of which were Americans.
The book reminds me very much of another interesting 1955 nautical survival classic, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord about the sinking by an iceberg of the supposedly “unsinkable” Titanic on its maiden voyage in the north Atlantic Ocean just the year before the Lusitania on April 12, 1914.
Another book which I haven’t yet read but was recently made into a movie directed by Ron Howard falls into this category of marine survival story as well, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. The ship was attacked by a sperm whale in 1820 and this book tells the fascinating story of the survival of the crew over ninety days at sea.
Also, The Perfect Storm: a True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger covers the commercial fishing vessel’s Andrea Gail’s October 1991 journey into the turbulent, stormy waters off of eastern Canada near Nova Scotia during a so-called “storm of the century” although in this case, unfortunately, none of the six crew members survived.