Erik Larson tackles World War I

Erik Larson has another best-seller on his hands, this time illuminating a sea disaster to rival the Titanic. Of course, it’s much more than that. The sinking of the Lusitania was man-made, and pushed the United States into World War I. For teens who savor the best YA nonfiction, books like Bomb and Hitler Youth, or Phillip Hoose’s [...]

Erik Larson has another best-seller on his hands, this time illuminating a sea disaster to rival the Titanic. Of course, it’s much more than that. The sinking of the Lusitania was man-made, and pushed the United States into World War I.

For teens who savor the best YA nonfiction, books like Bomb and Hitler Youth, or Phillip Hoose’s upcoming The Boys who Challenged Hitler (if I may sneak in an advance recommendation), Dead Wake is as suspenseful as any thriller, as intricate as a well-plotted mystery.

Dead Wake will interest war buffs (were the Allies hoping a civilian ship would be shot down, so that the U.S. would have more reason to join them?), and those obsessed with lifestyles of the Downton Abbey-era rich (how did the passengers spend their lazy, luxurious days on board the ship?).

NPR shares a compelling excerpt–introducing the captain of the U-boat on course to intercept the Lusitania.

LARSON, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. 448p. bibliog. illus. index. maps. notes. Crown. Mar. 2015. Tr $28. ISBN 9780307408860. LC 2014034182.  

One hundred years ago a German U-Boat torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania as the British ocean liner neared the Irish coast bound for Liverpool. Hundreds of civilian lives were lost as Germans redefined the limits of naval warfare and tempted America to enter the first World War.  With his signature storytelling, Larson weaves stories of those aboard the luxury liner and the submarine with the fabric of politics. The result is history as a tale that is as engaging and enthralling as a well-crafted mystery. The fear of passengers who were well-aware of the German pronouncement that their vessel was a target of warfare and the anxiety of the U-Boat captain desperate to fire his single last torpedo before returning to Germany ratchet up the tension as the paths of the ill-fated ship and the stalking submarine are drawn to their shared destiny.  All the while, British intelligence was charting German submarine activity in the Irish Sea and calling off escort cruisers that would have deterred any attack upon the Lusitania.  Larson does not subscribe to conspiracy or conjecture and seems content to have readers experience this remarkable historical incident through the eyes of its participants and perpetrators. In doing so, he provides teens with the opportunity to recognize that history is much more than facts and dates.  In the work’s pages, they will discover that history is often comprised of random choices, individual eccentricities, and circumstance as unpredictable as the weather.  VERDICT History is best read—and understood—as the stories of intersecting lives, and no one tells those stories as well as Larson, whose work should be in all high school libraries.–John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY

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