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Delving into history's unknown chapters

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'When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank'

As a rule, much of our understanding of history comes in terms of broad strokes. The reality is that history is so vast and sprawling, we can't help but wind up with gaps in our knowledge. Some of us might have more of these holes than others, but we've all got them.

That's what makes Giles Milton's 'History's Unknown Chapters' series so fascinating. Milton collects those overlooked moments and relates them in an engaging, accessible fashion, offering glimpses at the finer, oft-forgotten details that make up the bigger picture with which we're familiar.

His latest is 'When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank' (Picador, $16). The second book in the series, this one assembles over 20 little-known stories that offer readers a new and different understanding of history.

As you might expect, there are plenty of anecdotes involving the two titular world leaders. The very first one, in fact, is the story of those involved in the death of Joseph Stalin. There's also the story alluded to in the title, where a young Stalin undertakes a daring robbery that in many ways serves as a kind of origin story for the eventual Russian leader.

And while the Churchill story in the title might sound light-hearted, it's actually the tale of Churchill's desire to test and eventually use chemical warfare against Great Britain's enemies.

It should be noted that this isn't a 'silly history' book. Many of the stories related here are dark and/or sad; history contains plenty of bleak moments, some of which are reflected by tales told in this book. Stories of Nazi Germany, of ancient warlords and conquerors this isn't necessarily what anyone would deem light reading.

That said, there are some less-serious stories shared as well. The tale of how the Mona Lisa's theft turned it into the most famous painting in the world. A story of survival as a family spends nearly two months adrift at sea after their boat sinks. We learn about one of the greatest hoaxers in the history of archeology and the theft of Charlie Chaplin's body and the famed Johnson/Jeffries heavyweight boxing match.

Books like this one are tricky. On the one hand, there's a real need for meticulous research and attention to detail. You want to get the facts right otherwise, what's the point? However, a dry collection of dusty anecdotes is of no interest to a reader; engagement is key. What Milton does so well is find the necessary balance. The stories here are rich with facts and historical detail, but they're also generally interesting in a narrative sense don't be surprised if you fall victim to 'just one more' syndrome while reading this one.

One might be tempted to paint this book with the trivia brush, but it's not that not really. Yes, there are factoids to be gleaned from the stories told here, but it's more about enriching the overall historical narrative. Each of these tales adds a thread to the tapestry; some might be considered more 'important' than others, but they all contribute to a larger understanding of the overarching story that is the past.

'When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank' is filled with fascinating tales from the annals of history. While a reader might well already know a few of them, even a relatively well-versed student of history will likely discover a few surprises with its pages. If you have even a passing interest in the past, Milton's work here will prove a worthwhile read.


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