Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson


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#1 New York Times Bestseller

From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

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. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

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. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594720478
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Erik Larson is the author of five national bestsellers, including The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, which have collectively sold more than 6.5 million copies. His books have been published in seventeen countries.


Seattle, Washington

Date of Birth:

January 1, 1954

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, New York


B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978

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Excerpted from "Dead Wake"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Erik Larson.
Excerpted by permission of Diversified Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. In his Note to Readers, Erik Larson writes that before researching Dead Wake, he thought he knew “everything there was to know” about the sinking of the Lusitania, but soon realized “how wrong [he] was.” What did you know about the Lusitania before reading the book? Did any of Larson’s revelations surprise you? 

2. After reading Dead Wake, what was your impression of Captain Turner? Was he cautious enough? How did you react to the Admiralty’s attempts to place the blame for the Lusitania’s sinking squarely on his shoulders?

3. Erik Larson deftly weaves accounts of glamorous first-class passengers such as Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt with compelling images of middle-class families and of the ship’s crew. Whose personal story resonated the most with you?

4. Charles Lauriat went to extraordinary measures to protect his Thackeray drawings and his rare edition of A Christmas Carol, but eventually both were lost. In Lauriat’s position, which possessions would you have tried to save? Why does Larson write in such great detail about the objects people brought aboard the Lusitania?

5. Edith Galt Wilson would come to play a significant role in the White House after Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919. What made her a good match for Wilson? What other aspects of Wilson’s personal life did you find intriguing?

6. Why was Wilson so insistent on maintaining neutrality even as German U-boat attacks claimed American lives? Was his reluctance to go to war justified?

7. How did you respond to the many what-ifs that Larson raises about U.S. involvement in the Great War? Would Wilson have abandoned his isolationist stance without the Lusitania tragedy? Could Germany and Mexico have succeeded in conquering the American Southwest? 

8. By attacking civilian ships, were Captain Schwieger and his U-20 crew committing acts of terrorism? Does it matter that Germany ran advertisements declaring the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone? 

9. How did Captain Schwieger’s leadership style compare with that of Captain Turner? Did you feel sympathy for Schwieger and his crew?

10. Though the British Navy was tracking U-20’s location, it didn’t alert the Lusitania, nor did it provide a military escort. Why not? Do you consider Churchill and Room 40 partly to blame for the sinking? How should countries balance the integrity of their intelligence operations with their duty to protect civilians?

11. Some have argued that Churchill deliberately chose not to protect the Lusitania in hopes that the sinking of such a prominent ship would draw the United States into the war. After reading Larson’s account, what do you think of this theory? 

12. While Germany’s advertisement scared away some would-be Lusitania passengers, most placed their faith in the British Navy to protect the ship, and some laughed off the risk altogether. In their position, would you have cancelled your ticket?

13. What lessons does the sinking of the Lusitania have for us in the twenty-first century?


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Erik Larson

In May 1915, in one of the greatest maritime disasters in history, the Cunard liner Lusitania was attacked on its crossing from New York City to Liverpool, by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Germany had warned that its submarines would fire on ships like the Lusitania if they entered the zone of European hostilities; the ship's owners and passengers believed that the Lusitania's record-setting speed would make it an impossible target. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers and crew aboard, almost 1,200 died as the enormous ship was struck by two torpedoes and quickly sunk. International outcry followed, and President Woodrow Wilson came under increasing pressure to enter World War I against Germany — though this would not come to pass until two years later.

Can it be any surprise that Erik Larson — the author of Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and In the Garden of Beasts — would be drawn to the story of the Lusitania, its passengers, and its place in the history of technology, warfare, as well as America's emergence as a dominant world power? Researching his riveting new book, Dead Wake, Larsen sorted through passenger manifests and correspondence, reconstructing meals, games, wardrobes, and worries of its self-contained world. He also uncovered a little-known story of naval espionage that paralleled the disaster, a game of fox-and- hounds carried out by an unlikely team of British cryptographers. They could not save the ship, but in time they changed the course of the war.

Erik Larson spoke with us via email about the many stories that were braided together in Dead Wake. —Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: Your book coincides with the centenary of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania—what initially drew you to the subject? Had you been interested in writing about it for a long time, or were you prompted by the anniversary?

Erik Larson: I'm not a big believer in timing books to anniversaries. In this case, though, let's just say it was the thing that tipped the balance for me. I'd always been interested in the Lusitania, so, recognizing that the anniversary was at hand, I did a little reading, and immediately realized that there was so much more to the story than I had ever thought. More important, I realized that there was a very rich array of archival resources available that I felt had not been used to full advantage. I saw an opportunity to marshal all these sources in a way that would put readers aboard the Lusitania in a visceral way and conjure for them a rich sense of what that voyage must really have been like — the glamour, the suspense and, in the end, the tragedy and grief. It became for me an exercise in narrative suspense. True, real-life suspense.

BNR: In a sense the centerpiece of the book is the Lusitania's list of passengers and crew, which you mine to deliver a marvelous cross-section of American society at that moment. Did you come to have favorite "characters" among them?

EL: I like all the characters, but my favorite is probably Dwight Harris, a young New Yorker on his way to England to get engaged. He wrote a detailed letter about his journey to his mother, but it wasn't just the detail that drew me to him. It was his youth and enthusiasm. Clearly he was terrified; but just as clearly he was so delighted to have survived and lived to write about it. Passengers aside, my absolute favorite character in the book is easily the submarine commander, Kptlt. Walther Schwieger. He's the villain, of course, but he's a nuanced villain. As strange as this may sound, I think readers will feel a certain amount of sympathy for him.

BNR: By comparison to the Gilded Age or the '20s, the period of World War I in America (as opposed to Europe) has gotten something of a short shrift in popular history and historical fiction. Yet as you unveil it through the lives of the passengers of the Lusitania, it's a heady and rather exciting moment. Are we overdue for more treatments of this place and time?

EL: What makes this period in America challenging for writers is that the real action — the war — was occurring elsewhere, with no American involvement until 1917. Politics and labor history are compelling, but not nearly as much as war. The Lusitania provided a vehicle for looking at the home front in that era, in a way that was inherently compelling and suspenseful. When you know characters will soon be confronting catastrophe, you're likely to find even the most mundane aspects of their lives and their world interesting.

BNR: From the other side of the Second World War, it's hard for us now to imagine the reluctance of many Americans to get involved in the war in Europe—even after the sinking of the Lusitania, President Wilson was not ready to ask Congress for a declaration of war—and Wilson's secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, resigned over his belief that the administration might be drawn into the conflict. Are we a very different nation now, less reluctant to go to war?

EL: I think we, today, are far more willing to go to war — witness the Iraq invasion and subsequent military action. Wilson understood that war promised only tragedy and grief and tried to keep America out of it as long as he possibly could. His restraint was noble, and moral, but also practical. He recognized that if America did ever join the war in Europe, the nation had to be ready, fully and deeply primed for it, because this war promised evils — gas, machine guns, tanks, Zeppelins, submarines — like no war that had come before it. In 1915, the nation was not ready, and he knew it.

BNR: A torpedo attack against a neutral nation's unarmed ocean liner seems, absent of context, a very cold-blooded and reprehensible act, and of course it was seen by Americans that way at the time. You put it in the context of the more complex struggle of WWI. What does the view of Germany's submarine warfare look like from where you sit now?

EL: The thing that struck me over and over during my research, and while writing the book, was that you really have to go back to that era and adopt the point of view of the time to grasp how utterly, radically new the submarine was as a weapon of war. Only a few souls understood — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one, as he revealed in a prescient short story; the Admiralty's Jacky Fisher was another. Even Churchill, as chaotically brilliant as he was, couldn't accept the idea that Germany would actually use submarines to sink ships without warning. But, as Fisher put it so succinctly, "The essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility." In the end, Germany's submarine commanders were simply soldiers exploiting the power of a weapon that was new to them as well, and that offered means of attack hitherto unknown.

BNR: As passengers are boarding the Lusitania, with a very public threat from Germany published in the newspapers, the sinking of the Titanic — just three years earlier in 1912 — was on the minds of many. Yet the insistence that the ship's physical construction would make a disaster unthinkable seems to have been repeated. Were there lessons from the sinking of the Titanic that should have been applied?

EL: We today can look back and cluck at how the passengers and crew of the Lusitania exhibited the same hubris as those on the Titanic. The Titanic was believed to be unsinkable; the Lusitania was too fast to be caught. But the thing that characterized the age was an overweening confidence in the power of man-made objects to overcome obstacles like time and distance, and that confidence could not be deterred. Those who boarded the Lusitania on May 1, 1915, doubtless felt some anxiety, but at the same time, they took comfort in the sheer scale of the ship and its speed, and in the fact that for a century naval warfare against civilian vessels had been conducted in a chivalrous, humanitarian manner.

BNR: In the moment of the attack itself, you point out than a particularly unlucky confluence of events conspired to cause a catastrophe—the timing of the fog, the position of the ship, and even the U-boat captain's misjudgment of the Lusitania's speed, which turned out to result in a deadlier explosion—is it possible now to see the most significant error? Was it ultimately a misjudgment of Cunard to send the ship at all?

EL: The blame, in the end, falls to one man, and one man alone: The submarine commander, Walther Schwieger. Should Cunard have taken Germany's warning more seriously? That's a question that we today can ask, from the comfort of our living rooms. But in writing history, it's important to try to adopt the point of view of the time. POV, as screenwriters are fond of putting it. The fact is, only a few passengers canceled their bookings. Over a thousand passengers got on the ship that day, with every confidence that they would make it safely to Liverpool. What killed the Lusitania was a chance confluence of forces that brought it into the sights of Kptlt. Schwieger, whose torpedo happened to strike exactly the spot in the Lusitania's hull to cause it to sink in just eighteen minutes.

BNR: There is an unexpected thread of espionage and code breaking running through your story, of a type familiar those who followed the history of the Enigma project in World War II. How did you come across the story of Great Britain's "Room 40" and the secret war against German submarines?

EL: I'd like to say that I discovered the secret of Room 40, but I most decidedly did not. The exploits of "Blinker" Hall and Room 40 are well known among naval historians, although as best I can tell no previous writer sought to integrate the story of Room 40 into the voyage of the Lusitania. I must say, however, that I personally had never heard of Room 40 before starting work on this book. To me, just reading the archival materials written by and about the founders of Room 40, and seeing the actual intercepted German naval telegrams was a delight. My favorite research moment was at the National Archives of the UK, in Kew, when I opened a document box and found the actual codebook said to have been washed ashore in the arms of a dead German sailor — the codebook that let Room 40 begin listening in on German naval communications, and allowed it to keep doing so throughout the war.

BNR: You weave throughout the story of the Lusitania the path of President Wilson from grief and loneliness into a new chapter of his life—at the same time that he is drawn closer to war. For all of the significance of his administration, Wilson is a president Americans now have little connection to. Do you think humanizing accounts like this will change that?

EL: I can't speak for anyone else, but my research into Wilson's life during this period caused a profound change in my own perception of the man. I'd always thought him to be a rather stiff, professorial sort of guy. But here he was, a widower, who suddenly found himself falling deeply, passionately in love with the woman who would become his second wife. Such love letters! Dozens of them, revealing a man crushed by the death of his first wife and finding at last a hope of rebirth. I have a new respect for the man.

BNR: With so many other calamities during WWI and just after, which claimed so many thousands of lives, why does this one still fascinate us?

EL: I think, frankly, it fascinates us for the wrong reasons. As I worked on this book, I took every opportunity I could to ask friends and family how long they thought it took America to get into the war after the Lusitania. The replies I got ranged from two days to two months — no surprise, frankly, since high school history timelines portray the Lusitania as the Pearl Harbor of World War I. It wasn't. America didn't enter the war for two more years, and on the day Wilson at last asked Congress for a declaration that a state of war existed with Germany, he never even mentioned the Lusitania. What's been lost, I feel, is the true meaning of the Lusitania — it was a deeply moving, wrenching, horrific human disaster that killed wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and infants, in macabre and capricious fashion.

March 10, 2015

Customer Reviews

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 198 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The amount of research Erik Lawson did for this book is obvious in the details . If you like fast paced and edge of your seat non-fiction , this is a must read . Even his footnotes are interesting . I learned more about "The Great War" before the U.S.A. entry than I did in high school . I would recommend this book to anyone , only one small part about an autopsy might be too graphic for younger readers
PJtheEMT4 More than 1 year ago
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania  by Erik Larson is a poignant dramatized story of the sinking of the Lusitania of WW1.  This vivid drama gives not only the historical details of this pivotal event, but the emotional behind the scenes  drama that you will not read in history books.  I was so engrossed in the tory, especially the powerful account of the ship's demise.  Following the stories of multiple  voices gives the reader a unique omnipotent view of the overall picture.  This is especially moving during the account of the ship's sinking.  Going beyond a simple news paper-esque account, the author, Erik Larsen shares the intimate thoughts and emotions of the passengers as they face death.  A young boy with measles is separated from his pregnant mother in the commotion and panic as the ship is sinking.  His last horrific memory of the event is the haunting image of his mother giving birth in the cold see.  The traumatic image haunts him all the remaining days of his life.  Though the words are few, and the image is recounted in a single sentence, the emotional significance is beyond what the modern reader can imagine.  Another young mother traveling alone with her children finds herself torn between saving her infant daughter is the ship's daycare room or her toddler son sleeping alone in the bunk of her cabin. In a panic, she hands her daughter off to a stranger; next time she sees the stranger, he is scrambling onto a lifeboat- alone! The reader can only imagine the mother's grief and pain in those last moments before the ship goes under.  I found myself gripping the book tightly, hanging onto each word, reliving the horrors of those passengers and their last moments.  AT times I was reminded by the cinematic version of the Titanic- the scramble to get to lifeboats and lifejackets, the panic and the separation of families and parents from their children. Larsen is a talented writer that handles the facts as well as drama in this world changing event.  The sinking of the Lusitania- a bit of history that may occupy only a few lines to a few paragraphs in a history book, is retold moment by moment in extraordinary detail, in this 359 page book.  A number of references are included in the end as well as an index for those students and historians that may wish to use this book as a source in a research paper.  This is a must have for any WW1 or history enthusiast. As a blogger I received a copy of this book published by Crown publishers for the purpose of writing this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A truly stunning book!! Erik Larson masterfully braids together the stories of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, the U boat captain, the British Admiralty, and  U.S. President Wilson in this fascinating book.  This is one of those books that I did not want to put down and zipped through it in record time because it is so well written.  It kept my interest from beginning to end.   I recommend this book highly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Larson is the master of having you experience historical events through the eyes and voices of those who lived through them. In Dead Wake, he rapidly switches from the stories of the passengers on the Lusitania, to that of the captain of the ship, to that of the U-boat captain who sank the ship. Little details help remind the reader that all the participants were real people each with their own individual quirks. As the book progresses, tension mounts (even though one already knows the ultimate outcome). A great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow! One of those can't stop reading, totally neglect your husband and kids until you finish kinda book. Loved every page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As he has in previous books, Mr. Larson deepens our understanding of an historical event that we may have thought we understood. In this case, he places the sinking of the Lusitania in context, showing both the liner's occupants and the U-Boat's crew, the events that led to the sinking, and the results. (No, the U.S. did NOT enter WWI either solely because of the sinking or immediately thereafter.) This is not historical fiction, but history - and very compelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Going way beyond the facts of history, Erik Larson enriches this book with personal stories that make you feel as if you are there. This is a fast-moving presentation of the historic event through the eyes of the people who experienced it -- including the U-Boat Captain that launched the torpedo. Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Larson hits it out of the park. I read this book on a cruise, which made it even more meaningful. Larson is a master at the genre narrative nonfiction. Highly recommended.
Bozemandick More than 1 year ago
Erik Larson is a master story teller. Truth is stranger than fiction, and Dead Wake proves that adage again. Behind the actual story with its unbelievable fatal human errors is a subtle theme of aristocratic arrogance--an "unsinkable ship" sailing into troubled waters, protected by nothing more than huge egos. Knowing the outcome just heightens the suspense till the tragedy becomes all too real. It's hard to put it down, and we wish it had just ended differently.
plumguy More than 1 year ago
The story flows smoothly and deliberately; just like both subject vessels the Lusitania and U-20. The U-boat needs to compensate for the loss of three thousand pounds of mass after launching a torpedo.   Little details such as this float throughout the story like flotsam and jetsam. A great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
you know it's good when you find yourself rooting for the ship even though you already know what happened to it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my 3rd book by Mr Larson and he just intertwines multiple view points on the same historic moment with such coolness and flawlessly, I have purchased a couple more books he has authored.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The level of detail that the author is able to put together from obviously relentless research is completely amazing. I've loved everything since Devil in the White City and believe that he gets better with every publication
SneedUrn More than 1 year ago
Having loved Erik Larson's previous books (ISAAC'S STORM, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, THUNDERSTRUCK, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS) I was really looking forward to his recounting of the Lusitania disaster. There are many things to admire-his description of newsreel footage of the final departure is mesmerizing, the way some of the passengers are depicted both alive and dead and life onboard a German U-boat is given to us in a remarkably vivid way, but I never felt that sense of discovery that Larson gave us with his previous books. This felt like we were getting a retell of a story that has been told before with some new information here and there but no feeling afterwards of revelations. Of course, it may be difficult to top books like WHITE CITY or THUNDERSTRUCK, which recounted stories in connection with major events that I had never thought possible, but Larson's writing still pulls you in and this book is never dull-far from it. I just hope with his next book he chooses a subject that I never had heard of or one that I wish would be written about.
TreborMA More than 1 year ago
Erik Larson's "Dead Wake" is another in a long list of really excellent historical books that tell a story as well as document facts. The detail and personal insight expressed by Mr. Larson bring this somewhat misunderstood event into a new understanding. The accuracy based on obvious extensive research, for me, made this book an extremely quick read- it was really tough to put down. As in all the other Erik Larson books I have read, "Dead Wake" takes a long-passed incident and refreshes it with the intensity of a recent news event. The result is a very personal and sad recounting of both the predator and prey involved in one of history's most sinister acts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book and I'm glad I read it! So much of what I learned in high school history class.just wasn't right. How can this be, something is written and then no one checks the facts? I wish this author could write all high school history books because then kids would LOVE it! I'm now very excited to read some of Erik's other books. Thanks for making history engaging and exciting to read!
vikingkim More than 1 year ago
I've read another book on the Lusitania, seen documentaries, and I have met the owner (there is an owner) of the Lusitania wreckage, so I felt I had a pretty good background going in to Dead Wake. I really enjoyed it, and did learn new things! I got the Nook edition, and wonder where all the pictures are? Erik Larson's descriptions are wonderfully vivid, but no pictures to accompany them? Is this just the case in the Nook edition? I found the film he described of the Lusitania leaving NY on You Tube, so that was really exciting. I only give four stars instead of 5 due to lack of photos. They would have really added to my experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story. Reminds me of Walter Lord's "A Night To Remember" about Titanic sinking. All it lacks is some photos, of the ship, passengers, crew, etc. Maybe also diagrams of the ship so you can picture where things are happening. Biggest disappointment is the author's signature in the signed edition. His signature is horrible, just a loop and a line across the page. Impossible to tell even what letters they are. Why can't people make their signatures even halfway legible? B&N shouldn't bother having authors sign if this is what they do. That was a big reason I ordered the book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While at times the detail seemed a bit technical for me, I found this book to be a solid, engaging look at a tumultuous time in history.
rifleman280 More than 1 year ago
absolutely one of the best books I ever read about accounts that would lead America into world war one Eric Larson combines personal accounts of passengers along with personal accounts of the commanders of the Lusitania and the commander of U 20 the sub that sank the great ship survivors accounts make this a must read for history books if I could give this a 5+ rating I would great great great is all I can say
randall madison 18 days ago
Tasty color about events a century old, that however banal they seem... enrich our knowledge of the past and its impact on today.
Mahuenga More than 1 year ago
This is not Erik Larson’s best book because it lacks so much of the detail I enjoy in his writing. It may be that there just wasn’t enough information available. Nevertheless, I am glad he took the trouble to share what he did find in his usual engaging way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you have an interest in history you will enjoy this book. Brings the people who were on board to life. Heartbreaking.. politicians have not changed much even then they were spinning the facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. I rarely take the time to post reviews but had to do so after not being able to put this book down, especially the second half. Riviting, and so carefully totd story. A must read.
TheLiteraryPhoenix More than 1 year ago
Erik Larson is a master of non-fiction. In his telling of the sinking of the Lusitania, Larson tells the tale of a dozen people involved in the tragedy - the captains, the passengers, even the folks off the ship. It's a horrifying story of miscommunication, panic, and death. If you're familiar with the story of the Lusitania at all, then you know that the ship was primarily a passenger vessel. Merchant vessels like this were warned about sailing through war zones, and by all rights, it really should not have been torpedoed. But I'm not here to tell you the history of the Lusitania, nor assert my opinions regarding war tactics. Larson tells this as a story, carefully balancing different perspectives to offer a full, impartial story. No matter what way you spin it, the Lusitania is a deep, troubling tragedy. Through Larson's expert storytelling, you become attached to the passengers as characters in the tale. If you're even vaguely interested in the Lusitania, WWI, maritime history or history in general, I can't recommend this enough. It's beautifully told and filled with careful research. I enjoyed it as much as one can enjoy such a history.